Brian MacLellan has been a busy bee over the last few weeks, and one of the focuses of his work has been on shaping the team’s blueline for the foreseeable future. Heading into the trade deadline, only John Carlson was under contract for next season; since then, the Caps have ditched two soon-to-be UFAs in Dmitry Orlov and Erik Gustafsson, re-signed two more in Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk, and acquired Rasmus Sandin, who is signed through next season.
That leaves pending RFAs Martin Fehervary, Alex Alexeyev, and Gabriel Carlsson, the first of two at least who will almost certainly be re-signed - and rounds out what should be a pretty solid, if not particularly flashy, blueline for 2023-24 and potentially beyond.
As is likely to be the case with most of the roster going forward, if Brian MacLellan’s stated goal of crafting a younger roster around his aging core is to be believed (and there’s no reason to doubt it), the defense should be a nice mix of veterans and younger kids. Coming into the 2022-23 season, the average age of the blueline on opening night was just under 31, with Martin Fehervary checking in as the only player under the age of 30. If the Caps re-sign their three remaining RFAs and cut Matt Irwin, who will be a UFA this summer, that gives them three defensemen over 30 and four under 30 (three of which are just 23). That brings the average age down to just over 27.
Bang for the Buck
One of the upsides of a defense that skews younger is the fact that they’re likely to cost less overall. With the new deals for Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk, the Caps have about $16M tied up in defensemen next season. Even factoring in a relatively high payday for Martin Fehervary, who is the only one of the three pending RFAs for whom a bigger contract is more likely, the total cost of the Caps’ defense should come in on the lower end of the spectrum - at least when compared with this year’s numbers (the average being somewhere around $23-24M).
The Future is Now?
Martin Fehervary is perhaps still something of an unknown. He’s had an up-and-down but overall good start to his career, and at just 23 (and having missed significant chunks of time with injuries) he’s still finding his legs in the NHL. As for the rest of that under-30 crew, small sample size warnings abound, but early returns? Mixed, but overall not too bad, with the highlight of that group being the new kid on the block, who’s really shown that he has...the right stuff.
We’re talking Rasmus Sandin, who has burst onto the scene in DC and done things that literally no other player has ever done in franchise history - which is really something, considering that franchise history includes the likes of some guy named Alex Ovechkin (and plenty of other elite players, particularly recently). This first handful of games has given us a look at his potential, and the ceiling seems to be pretty high.
The blueline for 2023-24 and beyond isn’t without its holes and without potential for upgrades - and questions abound, as always.
For starters, while there is a mix of old and young, are the veterans maybe too veteran? Will the elder statesman of that trio, John Carlson, be able to regain his form (and stay healthy) whenever he makes his return from the significant head injury he suffered back in December? And do they need to bring in another top-four guy to fill the void left by Dmitry Orlov? (Spoiler: Probably yes.)
On the other side of the age spectrum, is Alex Alexeyev ready to take the next step and carve out a spot for himself on the full-time roster? Can Rasmus Sandin maintain the level of play he’s shown in these early games? And is Gabriel Carlsson the answer as the team’s seventh man on the blueline, or does the team need more depth - not just at the NHL level but in the organization as a whole?
Of course, one of the biggest question marks will be that of who is behind the bench at the start of next season - whether it will be Peter Laviolette and crew, or someone else, as that will likely play a role in what the team’s defense looks like going forward.
All things to ponder, and for sure things that will be on MacLellan’s mind heading into what should be an interesting offseason. It’s not an easy task - seems like everyone is always looking for good defensemen - but it’s one that he (unlike his predecessor) has certainly accomplished in the past.