Trying to predict what a team will look like a year out is nearly impossible because absolutely anything can happen; hell, anything can happen between now and next week. But with a couple of major contracts expiring next summer (and with a few more weeks remaining until hockey’s return), let’s try to see what the Washington Capitals roster will look like at the start of the 2020-21 season.
One thing that makes such predictions a little bit easier is the fact that the Caps have so few free agents next summer, albeit some important ones. Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, and Radko Gudas are the only pending UFAs, while Travis Boyd, Brandon Leipsic, Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson will be RFA next July.
Let’s attack the big boys first.
Nicklas Backstrom is definitely coming back. Even setting aside the fact he is the most beloved Capitals’ center ever, the team also desperately needs him, as their only real top-six potential center, Connor McMichael, will not be ready for years and the best UFA centers next summer will be Mikael Granlund and Brayden Schenn. If the Capitals don’t want to settle for one of those two (both of whom would be a huge downgrade), they’ll either have to make a trade or sign Backstrom. So unless something crazy happens... expect Backstrom back.
The bigger question regarding Backstrom’s status is how much will it take to keep him? As we discussed in a recent mailbag, it will probably be somewhere in the three to five year, 8M-$9M a year range. For the sake of settling on a number let’s go down the middle and say four years at $8.5M AAV.
While you can bet good money on Backstrom being back, don’t go putting your savings on the line for a similar return for Braden Holtby. Not only do recent comparables suggest that he will likely price himself out of Washington, a team that’s always cap strapped, but the Capitals also shouldn’t get into the business of handing out long term, big money contracts to goalies over 30. Add in the fact that Ilya Samsonov and/or Vitek Vanecek will be NHL-ready by next year - if not sooner - and it’s not looking good for Holtby sticking around.
As for the last UFA, Gudas, he’ll more than likely be gone. The Capitals will make him look very good (and he’s already better than people think) and he’ll get paid next summer. That’s for the best, because the Caps will need all the room they can get on the backend for their promising young players. The only scenario that makes sense for Gudas to stay is if Nick Jensen really flames out, and Gudas steps up to take the second right-handed defense position for himself.
That’s it for the UFAs; now for the RFAs. The RFA forwards are hard to predict because they are all depth players, so it’s more difficult to guess if they’ll stick around long-term. As good as they may be, they’re all ultimately pretty replaceable - and likely by cheaper options. That isn’t to say they are bad, of course, but the Caps do have plenty of prospects waiting for those third/fourth-line spots — guys like an Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Shane Gersich, Brett Leason, etc. It’s probably a safe bet to say that at least two of Boyd, Leipsic, or Stephenson will not be on the roster for the start of the 2020 season (and this season may go a long way toward telling us which two).
The only RFA defensemen are Siegenthaler and Djoos. If Siegenthaler continues to perform the way he did during his 30-game stint in the NHL last season, the Capitals have a very good player on their hands that they will most likely hang on to barring a horrific 2019-20 season.
The same may not be true for Djoos, which is a shame. Djoos is very good and deserves more time than he usually gets, but if some of the Caps’ young defensive prospects start needing spots, one of them might push him out. Older and more expensive than Siegenthaler, Djoos is a more likely possibility to be the one departing to make room - that is, if one of the many left-handed defensive prospects are ready to make that NHL step next summer, which of course isn’t a guarantee.
If Djoos wants to stick around, he’ll need to stay healthy and put up some points, which he is more than capable of doing — and the Caps could use it, because as strong as the defensive core is right now, they are lacking any real offensive pop outside of John Carlson (who will be 30 in January). Djoos can make it much tougher for the team to move on from him if he proves to be a valuable offensive asset.
Either way, if it’s Djoos or prospect, neither will cost too much so it shouldn’t affect the team’s structure.
As for the goalies, Samsonov seems to have the clearest path to the starter’s spot in 2020-21 unless he takes a huge step back this upcoming season. Pheonix Copley is currently under contract through 2023, but he’ll likely never be a true starter at the NHL level. His role, should he stick around, should be to help Samsonov ease into the NHL.
Another interesting player fellow goalie prospect and Hershey netminder Vitek Vanecek. Often overshadowed by Samsonov, Vanecek has a great skillset in his own right that could very well translate to the NHL. The Caps certainly seem to believe this, because they extended him with a three-year deal this summer, structuring it so that the last two years were one-way deals — so starting in the 2020-21 season, he must go through waivers to be sent to the AHL.
As a result, it’s very possible that the Caps experience a complete turnover in net between 2019-20 and 2020-21, with Samsonov and Vanecek taking over for Holtby and Copley. Regardless, between Samsonov, Vanecek, and Copley, the Capitals should be able to put together a strong duo in the NHL for the foreseeable future.
So let’s take a look at what the team could look like using CapFriendly GM Armchair tool:
A major factor in whether this is the roster the team goes with in 2020-21 is if Holtby takes a big discount to stay in DC, or the Caps do end up handing him a hefty market-value deal, requiring at least one player get traded to make room for the goalie. Otherwise, some type of combination of this roster (with possible depth changes to the fourth-line LW and third D pair) is probably what the Caps will look like to start the 2020-21 season.
As a bonus side note, that roster would actually give the Caps quite a bit of cap space for the first time in years, even if the cap doesn’t go up at all next summer (highly doubtful). The Caps would have nearly $6 million in space, and possibly more. That’s a lot, with only Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana set to be free agents the following summer and the expansion draft looming.
All in all, that’s still a mighty good-looking team that could once again be Cup contenders. Again, so many things could change between now and next summer: Holtby could sign for pennies, Backstrom could not sign at all, Gudas could outplay Jensen, no defensive prospect makes the jump, Djoos puts up great offensive numbers, etc. But considering what we know and how the team operates, this will be pretty darn close to your 2020-21 Capitals.