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How Will a Possible Flat Cap Affect the Capitals in 2020-2021?

A look ahead to an uncertain future...

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NHL: FEB 20 Canadiens at Capitals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the very beginning of March, the NHL cap for the 2020-2021 season was projected to be between 84 and 88.2 million dollars. A month later, the cap is projected to stay flat (meaning the cap stays at 81.5 million) for the 2020-2021 season, maybe even for the next couple seasons, due to the impacts of the Coronavirus. Needless to say, it’s been a wild month.

In an article Greg Wyshynski wrote recently for ESPN, about how this summer will be the worst offseason for unrestricted free agents, he said, “Anything below [a flat cap] would be a disaster for a handful of teams. Keeping the cap at $81.5 million, the 2019-20 season’s ceiling, would be a disaster for those teams and then another group of them.” The high end teams who desperately need to compete need the cap to rise, without a raise, they might be forced to remove some talent to make a proper roster.

James Mirtle, writer for the Toronto Maple Leafs over at the Athletic, wrote an article about how a flat cap will affect his local team. He mentions this will greatly affect the top tier competitive teams that are spending to the cap every season, and that of course that includes the Washington Capitals.

For the Maple Leafs, the lack of rise in the cap will really hurt. According to Mirtle, Toronto will need to lose at least one good player, maybe more, just for them to set a proper roster. So how will this possible flat cap affect our boys in red?

First let’s take a look how the Capitals will look next season before any unrestricted (UFA) or restricted (RFA) free agents either sign or walk, before anyone is possibly traded, or any kids are brought up into the line up. This is the roster based just off who is signed through next season, via CapFriendly:

With 11 forwards, four defensemen, and one goalie set for next season, the Capitals are in a pretty good spot. Assuming the Capitals want to stick with the usual 22 man roster (they can go as low as 20 and as high as 23), they just need to add three defensemen, two forwards, and a goalie, and have around 10.4 million dollars in cap space with which to do it.

That might not seem like a lot of money to sign six players, but it’s important to note that the Capitals have no big holes to fill. Their top six forwards, top four defensemen, and starting goalie are likely already set. For them it’s about getting proper depth, then maybe using extra money to tweak the roster for marginal upgrades.

Okay, so let’s start plugging in some players that make sense. We won’t go too far out of left field with trades or big unrestricted free agent signings. Just simple plug-ins with current players or small-ticket UFAs.

For RFAs, Jonas Siegenthaler is a no-brainer to re-sign. He’s proven to be a high end defensive defensemen and at his age he’ll only get better. He brings very little offense to his game, which will keep his bridge deal down for now. So what will Siegenthaler’s next deal look like? Karl Alzner might be a good comparison, and he received a $1.285-million AAV on his two-year bridge deal, nearly a decade ago (time flies, doesn’t it?). Inflating that price to fit today’s cap hit and considering Alzner came from a better pedigree (fifth overall pick), $1.5 million for two years for Siegenthaler makes sense, maybe a bit more, but not much.

Then let’s assume that one of Travis Boyd and Brendan Leipsic get re-signed. Maybe both do, but it’s been a while since the Capitals carried two extra forwards. They have the room to do it if need be, but for this exercise we’ll keep just one. Boyd has the better offensive upside and has put in his time with the Capitals to deserve another contract.

Daniel Sprong is a strong candidate to come out of training camp to make the team. He would need to be signed to a RFA contract, probably around $800,000. But if not him, Connor McMichael could certainly steal a spot. If the Ontario Hockey League finished their season he’d basically be a lock to make the Capitals, but with so much time off it will be interesting how Connor will play in pre-season. and camp. McMichael needs top nine NHL time or go back to Juniors. Fourth-line time with healthy scratches won’t help his development at all.

Martin Fehervary is not only a fan favorite but an organization favorite. General Manager Brian MacLellan has spoken very highly of the kid multiple times. He had a great handful of NHL games this season and has proven he’s ready to take the next step. The Hershey Bears have been playing him a lot at the right side, grooming him to try that side in the NHL. There’s little doubt he’ll be with the big boys for the 2020-2021 season, it’s just a matter of where he’ll be positioned.

The Capitals don’t really have anybody that should be sitting in that number seven spot on the defensive end. A kid like Alexander Alexeyev is probably ready to take the next step, but it would be much better for his development to get top pair time in Hershey. Tyler Lewington is a UFA that fits that number seven spot persona, but Capitals probably want someone with experience. For this exercise Tim Heed represents that good veteran experience that is also just a good bottom pairing player.

With Braden Holtby most likely moving on (more on that later) the Capitals will need someone to pair with Ilya Samsonov. They have Pheonix Copley still in the system, and he’s proven at the very least to be an average back up. But with Vitek Vanecek having an All-Star year, and, by all reports, the Capitals liking him, he’ll most likely get a very good look to be the back up next year. His contract is one-way next season, meaning he will need to pass waivers if they send him to Hershey and that could be dangerous. With the way Tristan Jarry played this season and teams missing out on him on waivers last Fall, the other 30 teams could see the same in Vaneck and take a swing on him.

So let’s see how this team looks with all of the pieces above plugged in.

Twenty-two players signed with nearly five million dollars in space is a good position to be in.

Now let’s turn our attention to the Caps’ pending unrestricted free agents, noticeably absent from that roster: Holtby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Brenden Dillon, and Radko Gudas.

After Sergei Bobrovsky signed a 7-year/$70M contract with the Florida Panthers last summer, Holtby seemed destined for a similar ~$10M/year deal before the 2019-20 season began. But with both Holtby and Bobrovsky having down years and with the cap staying flat, it’s hard to see Holtby getting anything close to that now (granted, all it takes is one crazy GM to go crazy). But still, even if we remove Vanecek’s contract from the roster above, the resulting ~$5.5M likely won’t be enough to keep Holtby in town, barring a significant home-team discount (regardless of the question of whether the team should even consider that). Some team out there will give him $7M or more for multiple years. The Capitals don’t have the room to do that and even they did, they shouldn’t; Samsonov is the future.

Dillon was a strong add at the deadline, being a big, physical force that the team could rely on defensively. His new price tag will probably be close to $4M, so it’s possible the Capitals could fit him under. But with Fehervary and Alexeyev (maybe even Bobby Nardella) coming up, and with Dmitry Orlov, Siegenthaler, and Michal Kempny still on the team, it’s hard to see the team wanting to invest in a 29 year old left handed defensemen. Maybe if he wanted to do a short-term deal, Dillon would make sense, but this is his chance to go out and make the most money in his career so it would be surprising if he stuck around on a cheaper deal.

It’s been a dream for many to see Kovalchuk in a Capitals uniform and it finally happened. Unfortunately, it could be for only seven games due to the suspended season. He did well, putting up four points in seven games, and 17 points in 29 games between the Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens. Many probably want to see him re-signed and he probably wouldn’t cost that much, probably around $2M, but Ilya just turned 37 yesterday (happy belated birthday, by the way), so how much does he have left in the tank? Should the Capitals get wrapped up in that? It might make sense if the Capitals want to send McMichael back to Juniors and Sprong doesn’t pan out, which would open up a spot for the Russian.

Radko Gudas had a good start to the season, being a strong bottom-four defensemen. But his play seemed to tail off the last couple months and he was even a healthy scratch the last three games before the season was suspended. He’s turning 30 this summer and the Capitals have some kids coming up. What he has going for him is he is right-handed, but still hard to see him being re-signed unless it’s for very cheap and a one or two year deal.

So if the Capitals wanted they could probably bring back one (Dillon) or even two (Gudas and Kovalchuk) of their UFAs with some finagling. But this is still assuming the cap stay flat. What will be interesting, is what if the cap even goes down?

Pierre McGuire recently said he could see the cap going down as much as 40%. About zero teams would be able to handle that, which makes it very unlikely. But Elliotte Friedman did wonder in his 31 Thoughts, “Will the league and players — as part of their CBA discussions — consider a lower salary cap, with the players offering a salary rollback in exchange for some kind of escrow protection? (In addition to next year’s big number being paid out over time.)” So lowering the cap is a real possibility.

The point is, the Capitals should be in a good spot where the cap, if it stays flat or only lowers by most $5M, should not affect them from being a competitive team moving forward. And that’s a good spot to be in.