You have got to hand it to Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, when he sees a problem, he's not shy about trying to correct it. Right defense was a glaring weakness for Washington all throughout the 2019-20 season and MacLellan looked to address that issue aggressively on Friday by signing defenseman Justin Schultz to a two-year, $8 million contract.
Despite the team being very close against the cap ceiling, MacLellen elected to gamble most of the team's remaining cap space on Schultz, a puck-moving defenseman who he believes will fit nicely into new head coach Peter Laviolette's system.
"We really like his offensive potential, his ability to join the rush, ability to quarterback a power play," MacLellan said. "I think [Peter Laviolette's] teams activate defense aggressively, so we were trying to find a guy that fit that bill for him.
Washington entered last season hoping that Nick Jensen would step into a second-pair role on the team and take command of the position after trading away Matt Niskanen. He could not and neither could Radko Gudas. While John Carlson remains the team's top right defenseman, there was no clear answer for who to play behind him on the second pair as both Jensen and Gudas looked more like bottom-pair defensemen than top-four players. Jensen's play improved in the playoffs and, given the team's cap constraints, it seemed Washington would be content keeping him in a top-four role and looking for depth to play behind him. Clearly, that was not the case.
Schultz's $4 million cap hit is a steep price for a defenseman who has struggled to stay healthy the past two seasons and is a clear indication that MacLellan sees Schultz taking a top-four role on the team. It is the third-highest cap hit on the team among the defensemen and is even higher than Brenden Dillon's $3.9 million despite the fact that Dillon is expected to take on a top-pair role.
But there may be a lot more shuffling going on next season and adding Schultz allows the team more flexibility on its defensive pairs.
When asked if Schultz would play on the second pair, MacLellan said, "Yeah, I think so. We’ve got flexibility. I think talking to Peter [Laviolette] you can try him with both Dillon and [Dmitry Orlov]. We’ve got some flexibility now."
Instead of last year where the team had to stick with Carlson on the top pair and had no clear answer for the second pair, now the team has both Schultz and an improving Jensen as options to play on the second pair alongside a number of options on the left including Jonas Siegenthaler and Martin Fehervary in addition to Dillon and Orlov.
Coming into the start of free agency, many would not have thought the team could afford Schultz, but clearly, MacLellan felt adding a player who he sees as a top-four defenseman was enough of a priority that he was willing to spend big to get him.