The Capitals need to move salary this offseason. Why that makes defenseman Matt Niskanen a trade target

Brian McNally
NBC Sports Washington

The Capitals need to move salary this offseason. Why that makes defenseman Matt Niskanen a trade target originally appeared on nbcsportswashington.com

The numbers are stark and full of terrors for the Capitals. 

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If this coming offseason isn't like 2017, when Washington had to give away veteran players for draft picks and let other key members of that team leave in free agency, it is close to it. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made that clear last month. 

"Depending on what we decide to do, you might have to create some [salary-space and just go from there," MacLellan said. 

That's ominous phrasing, but rooted in reality. And certain players are obvious candidates for a trade. No one better fits that description than defenseman Matt Niskanan. 

This isn't to say Niskanen deserves to be run out of town. His play was below his standards early in the season, but he insists he got closer to his normal level by season's end. 

"I would say the first 50 games overall not as good as I have played in the past. Certainly better later than early in the year," Niskanen said. "I think I played closer to my usual level the later the season went on. That was when I was most competitive and best execution and all that good stuff."

Much like teammate Brooks Orpik, Niskanen helped transform a blueline in disarray when he arrived as a free agent from Pittsburgh in 2014. He's been a good character in the room. He was a key part of a Stanley Cup team. You look to add players like that, not subtract.  

But Niskanen's $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the final two years of his contract makes him a target. Just like Orpik's final year at $5.5 million made him an obvious trade candidate last spring. Not 10 days after the championship parade down Constitution Avenue, Orpik was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. He was brought back to Washington after being bought out, but at $1 million plus bonuses. This is a hard business. 

It isn't always about your play. Niskanen has shown signs of slipping, but he is only entering his age 33 season and has generally stayed healthy. He fills in on the power play, he logs heavy minutes against tough competition and up until last year – the fourth year of his deal- was a positive puck possession player. It's Washington's other needs that could make draft weekend on June 21 in Vancouver interesting. 

The Capitals have two third-line wingers – Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly – who are unrestricted free agents. Connolly, 27, is looking for a bigger role and a raise from $1.5 million. Hagelin, who turns 31 in August, is looking for one last solid contract after his four-year, $16 million deal expires. Restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky needs at least a qualifying offer of $3.25 million. Scoring depth is an admitted issue for Washington, according to general manager Brian MacLellan. Losing all three of those players would not help them there. 

The Capitals also need money for a raise for second-line winger Jakub Vrana, who is a restricted free agent and coming off a breakthrough season (24 goals) at age 22. They have one year left for both center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby. Defenseman Christian Djoos is a restricted free agent. They also need to sign a couple of depth forwards and a depth defenseman. 

Add in that Washington acquired defenseman Nick Jensen at the trade deadline from Detroit and immediately signed him to a four-year contract extension for a reasonable price ($2.5 million cap hit) and you now have a ready-made replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair next to Dmitry Orlov.

These tea leaves aren't difficult to read. This isn't speculation in a vacuum. The Capitals could certainly keep Niskanen and be happy with their defensive depth, but the trade off is limited money available to keep its wingers on the third line or upgrade at all on the fourth line. Sign Vrana to a $4 million extension and keep Niskanen and there is around $4.5 million-$5 million left to add two third-line wingers, a fourth-line winger, two depth forwards and one depth defenseman, according to the web site CapFriendly.com. There just aren't enough NHL-ready forwards in the minor-league system to make those numbers work, however.  

MacLellan could also throw a curve ball and trade someone we aren't thinking about to clear money. But who would that be? Orlov, 27, is younger than Niskanen, but there isn't a replacement ready on the left side of the second pair. Evgeny Kuznetsov took some heat for his up-and-down play in a 72-point season. But the Capitals spent the better part of half a decade looking for a second center to play with Nicklas Backstrom. 

Where would the expected high-end talent you'd get back in a Kuznetsov trade fit on this roster? You already have Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie and Vrana on the wings. You already have John Carlson as an elite defenseman. And you aren't trading Kuznetsov for futures (draft picks, prospects). MacLellan always has something up his sleeve at the draft, but this doesn't seem like a team that needs a bombshell trade. Not yet. 

And so that leaves Niskanen as the player who makes the most money, has a teammate who could replace him under contract and who would clear enough cash to maybe squeeze two of Hagelin, Connolly and Burakovsky back on the roster for scoring depth – or other free agents who would fit those roles.

It isn't fair. But that's the business side of the NHL. Given his age, track record, championship experience and just two years to go on the original seven-year contract, Niskanen would be a fit on a lot of NHL teams. It just might not be with the Capitals anymore.

 

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