Over the last decade or so, the Capitals have had relatively good luck when it comes to injuries, particularly to key players. Since the end of last season, however, that luck seems to have run out. Just 16 games into the 2021-22 campaign, they have been hit with injuries to Nicklas Backstrom, Anthony Mantha, TJ Oshie and Nic Dowd, while Lars Eller recently headed to the sidelines due to COVID protocol.
The result has been a roster that looks nothing like what any of us thought it would to this point. During the offseason, the boys in red were projected to look something like this:
That’s a really good looking, strong team... and it’s a far cry from the lineup that took the ice against the LA Kings on Wednesday night:
And #Caps' lines/pairs in LA:— Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps) November 18, 2021
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 73-Sheary
45-Jonsson-Fjallby, 24-McMichael, 43-Wilson
10-Sprong, 59-Protas, 21-Hathaway
62-Hagelin, 40-Pilon, 49-Leason
57-van Riemsdyk, 2-Schultz
Samsonov vs. Quick. #CapsKings
But this isn’t technically a bad thing. All of these injuries have given the lineup a much needed shot of youth, speed, and skill. In return, the Capitals have gone on a great run, losing only two games in regulation through their first 17, while carrying the play most games (53.6 xGF%, 51.9 SCF%, and 52.8 HDCF% over that span).
It’s one thing to have an infusion of rookies in the lineup; it’s another to have them perform as well as the Caps’ kids have so far. Connor McMichael has been one of the best rookies in the NHL, and leads the Caps’ rookies with six points. Both Brett Leason and Alexei Protas have been solid additions to the lineup with their mix of high hockey IQ and long reaches , while Axel Jonson-Fjallby’s speed and tenacity and Garret Pilon’s skill have made them both stand out in their brief time in DC.
So the Caps are now faced with what is a relatively good problem to have (but a problem nonetheless): what to do when the veterans start coming back. They could easily revert back to that first lineup from the offseason, but that’s where the problems begin. Many of these young kids have proven they are not just NHL ready but also provide a huge boost to an older roster and have improved the team when they are on the ice - and for some of them, sending them down could be risky.
So let’s run a simulation: you’re Brian MacLellan, your team is finally fully healthy and you want to put together your best lineup. How would you go about making that happen?
The low-hanging fruit is to send Protas and Leason back to Hershey. It would be sad to see them go, but they are waiver exempt and it would not hurt their development at all to head down to the AHL where they can get top-six minutes. You could also send down Matt Irwin, who would more than likely make it through waivers.
But after that is where it gets a little tricky. The only other player that is waiver eligible is McMichael - but he’s also been the best of the group, and one of the team’s better players overall, leading the team with a 64.3 xGF% and 65.5 SCF% and trailing only Oshie (who hasn’t played in 10 games) in HDCF with 64.2. It’s a tough call to make from a team perspective and from a development/managerial standpoint... but for the sake of argument in this simulation, you send McMichael down to make the cap work.
You’re now at a 23-man roster but still need to shed about $650K to get under the cap, so one more move is required. The most likely option is one of Jonsson-Fjallby or Pilon, each of whom has a cap hit of $750K. Who goes?
Let’s start with Pilon. He’s a 23-year-old who has had a successful junior and AHL career. He was put on waivers and got through to start the season when it was easier to do so - but now a month in, teams are getting a sense of what they have on the roster and where they are in terms of healthy and may be more likely to snag someone like Pilon off the waiver wire.
Then you have Jonsson-Fjallby, who didn’t even make it through waivers during that “easy” preseason time. Now that he’s had success at the AHL level and proven to be perfectly capable of playing in the NHL - albeit in limited time - it’s even less likely that he gets through. He’s also seemingly got the support and trust of Peter Laviolette, with Jonsson-Fjallby having racked up the seventh-most ice time among forwards per game among forwards during his six-game stint.
So in order to rebuild that preseason lineup, you’d have to send down a group of rookies that have played very well, potentially losing one or two of them on waivers.
Not ideal. But maybe there’s another option.
Michal Kempny is a player that most of us probably forgot was down in Hershey, but he’s still down there and with him is his cap hit of $2.5M (although only $1.375M counts against the Caps’ salary cap hit because he’s in the AHL). If the Caps were to find a way to move him, they’d free up that $1.375M, leaving them more than enough to keep McMichael, Jonsson-Fjallby, and Pilon with the big club, although obviously not with the playing time and roles they currently have.
Is there a market for a guy who hasn’t played in the NHL in almost two years? Perhaps not, but he does have some value as someone currently in the AHL - a team looking for good defensive depth might be more willing to trade for him because Kempny can go right to their AHL team and be called up when needed. The Capitals could eat about $700K to make it work as well, which means a team would only need about $500K in space to keep Kempny in the AHL until the playoffs if they want.
Another option is to waive Carl Hagelin. He wouldn’t even necessarily need to actually go to the minors; similar to what happened with Brooks Laich several years ago, they can waive him but have him stay with the team to practice (should he make it through waivers). That would save $1.125M against the cap, which is enough to keep the kids around. It also opens up a spot for one of them to play (most likely AJF).
The good (?) news for MacLellan is that he’s got some time to find that flexibility, as the injured players won’t all come back at once. Eller can return in about a week, while both Dowd and Oshie could follow, and Backstrom is probably still a few weeks away. Mantha is likely months out - but he does pose the biggest problem, as his cap relief alone can keep all these kids around but would require a trade or move of some kind to bring him back into the active roster.
Unless there’s another long-term injury, of course... but let’s not hope for that.