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Japers’ Rink Mailbag: The Caps’ Cap Scrap

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Judging the Caps’ moves as well as a look at the Caps’ cap situation in this week’s mailbag.

NHL: APR 15 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round - Capitals at Hurricanes Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s time for another fun-filled Mailbag - you asked, we answered!

The Capitals had a pretty underrated offseason. Sure, they didn’t add any big guns or sexy names, but they did do a really good job of cutting fat and strengthening a lot of weaknesses that caused problems for them last season. As a whole, the team got stronger and we should see a better product on the ice this upcoming season.

The question asked for just one move that I wished the Capitals made, but I’ll give a couple. First is probably locking up Jakub Vrana long term. Vrana signed a two-year bridge deal with the Caps over the summer at a $3.35M per year, but is poised for a breakout this upcoming season and will probably keep building on it as the years go on. So instead of locking him up for around $5M for 6-8 years, Vrana will come out of this bridge deal most likely asking for $6M+. In fairness, however, the Capitals probably wanted to get a long term deal done but with the cap problems they simply couldn’t — so it’s hard to blame them for this.

It also would have been nice to see the team take a bigger swing on their first-round pick and go for someone like Arthur Kaliyev or Bobby Brink. Connor McMichael is a good pick with legit top-six upside, but where the Caps are now needing top-tier talent down the road, going for the home-run swing would have been preferred. McMichael is perhaps more of a lock to make the NHL at all, but Kaliyev and Brink have higher ceilings.

Speaking of swinging for the fences, going after Nikita Gusev could’ve been a nice move for the Caps. Gusev was ranked as the best player outside the NHL with legit top-six, even top-line talent, and Vegas ended up trading him to the New Jersey Devils for a measly second and third round pick, an absolute steal. There’s no promise Gusev will translate his game over to the NHL, but gutsy moves like that are key to staying relevant (although going after him would’ve required salary cap sacrifices, likely meaning the moving out of at least two of the players brought in/re-signed to boost the defense and PK).

And just for fun, while it hasn’t happened (yet?) one move the Caps should not make is trading Christian Djoos. It seems he may be on the chopping block due to the cap issues, but it would be a mistake to cut him just to make the money work. That’s partly because the return would likely be much less than what he’s worth but more importantly because he’s very good and his offensive game is really important to a team that’s lacking any offense from their defense outside of John Carlson. Hopefully cooler heads prevail and they find the money somewhere else.

If Djoos is on the roster when the new season begins (and he should be), he’ll be fighting Jonas Siegenthaler for the third-pair left-side defensive position. It’s going to be an intriguing battle between the two. They are both very good young defensemen that bring different elements to the lineup, with Djoos having more offensive upside to his game and high-end vision and passing ability, and Siegenthaler bringing more of a defensive style with his smooth skating, big body, and smart game.

For Djoos, he will really need to step up in preseason if he wants to win the position battle, because the most recent taste in everyone’s mouths will be the great play of Siegenthaler while Djoos was out with an injury last season. The way he can do that is by using his offensive skills. After Carlson, Djoos is probably the best (and really the only consistent) defensemen with high offensive upside, and he can separate himself from the pack with his ability.

All of that and I still haven’t answered the question, so let’s break it down. 475 minutes is less than half of what a third pairing defenseman would play if they played all 82 games in a season. The coaching staff does seem to love Siegenthaler, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them split any available time evenly especially if the coaching staff wants a more offensive or defensive lineup, but that’s still in the neighborhood. So my gut feeling is that he hits at least 475 minutes this season.

Quick answer is yes, yes they should.

And it could very well happen to start the season, whether the Capitals want to or not. With the Capitals in a cap crunch, one of the options they could exercise to free up space is sending down Pheonix Copley and bringing up Vitek Vanecek. Vanecek is ready for the NHL and could probably provide what Copley did last season with the chance to do even more. But he’ll have to show up Copley in preseason to really sell it to the brass.

If the Capitals could have their way, Ilya Samsonov would probably get a lot of NHL games of experience this season. Issue is that they are up against the cap and calling him up won’t happen unless there is an injury to clear space or if it happens in the back half of the season where cap space saved up in the bank can be used to fit him under the cap. Knowing that they most likely won’t be able to afford Holtby’s next contract, the Caps’ higher-ups will want to know if Samsonov is ready. So one way or another, fans will see Ilya in red at some point this upcoming season.

The issue in all of this is that the Caps will likely want Copley around for the Seattle Expansion draft in the summer of 2021. So if they want to bring up Vanecek or Samsonov, Copley would have to go on waivers and they may not want to take that chance. Of course he doesn’t have to go on waivers if the Capitals have the cap space to keep three goalies on the roster... but that’s usually a bad idea if it lasts more than a couple weeks, as we got to see firsthand when former coach Adam Oates kept Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, and Jaroslav Halak dangling for months. If the Capitals get space, though, it wouldn’t be an issue for Vanecek or Samsonov to get called up for just a couple of days and the occasional game before being sent back to Hershey.

I don’t know if it’s fair to say the Capitals hate grooming their own talent. The issue is, once Brian MacLellan took over five years ago he made a decision that the Capitals must go all in to try to win a Cup. When doing that, it’s much harder to take a chance on a young player like Riley Barber or Nathan Walker to fill full time roles.

Richard Panik, Carl Hagelin, and Garnett Hathaway are more definite NHL players than Barber or Walker. It is arguable that a player like Barber, who scored more than 30 goals last season in the AHL, has a higher upside than a player like Hathaway and maybe even a ceiling like Panik’s, but the Caps brass don’t want to take that chance. They understand the team they have now is great and can’t gamble on a prospect at this point.

The Capitals could certainly end up regretting their decision if Barber ends up playing well for Montreal, but it’s not a chance they could take. If this Barber situation was happening five years ago he’d definitely have a starting position when the season begins in October. But with Ovechkin and Backstrom getting older it’s just a case of Barber being ready at the wrong time.

I actually ended up answering this earlier his week so you can go there for more in depth details. But the most creative solution is probably sending down Pheonix Copley and bringing up Vitek Vanecek. It will get the Capitals about $50K under the cap but still allow them to carrying seven good defensemen and a thirteenth forward.