What a flat salary cap really means for Washington

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J.J. Regan
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Caps Mailbag: What a flat salary cap really means for Washington originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

It's time to hear from you, the fans, and answer what's on your mind in the Capitals Mailbag.

If you have a question for the mailbag, send it in to capitalsmailbag@gmail.com

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Edie R. writes: Could you please address the Capitals’ plan for center depth? I cannot think that the organization went into this season with the plan being to move T.J. Oshie around or play seven defensemen and double shift three centers. What was the original plan for center depth and where do the Caps go from here?

The Caps' center depth was exposed in the playoffs last year when Nicklas Backstrom was knocked out of Game 1. Todd Reirden tried Travis Boyd and then Brian Pinho and neither played particularly well. Then the team lost Boyd, making the center depth even thinner. When GM Brian MacLellan started loading up on depth in the offseason, I thought center would have to be near the top of the list in terms of priorities, but they did not add any depth there at all which I found curious. Maybe the team did not like the available options, maybe they ran out of cap space, maybe they were planning to trade one of their eight defensemen for a depth center, I don't know. But at the end of the day, they are too thin at the most important skating position on the ice. 

Right now you have Evgeny Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd and then…? That's a strong lineup, but there is no depth.

Pinho, Mike Sgarbossa and Philippe Maillet are minor league players and Connor McMichael has never played a single NHL game at center (he played wing in his lone NHL appearance). I have to think MacLellan is going to be looking for a depth center before the trade deadline, but considering the team is already over the cap and any deal will have to be dollar in, dollar out, I don't know if he is going to be able to pull that off.

Sean G. writes: Peter Laviolette entered the organization with a colorful reputation, and the coaching implications of that versus the Caps roster was an interesting point of speculation. Have you gotten a sense so far of how the players have felt about his system or coaching style? Has he been the stern force that was expected?

Laviolette had a reputation for being more of a disciplinarian and holding players accountable. From what I can gather, he has been as advertised. I know everyone has seen the video of him yelling in the locker room when he was with the Flyers and expected to see some of that with the Caps, but the fact is most of that happens behind closed doors so really you're not going to see lots of yelling or cursing and you aren't going to see many coaches toss their players under the bus.

Here's what I can tell you. The way this team wants to play defense requires a five-man unit and the buy-in is absolutely there. How well the Caps are playing defensively from just the start of the season compared to now, it's almost night and day. The difference is even more pronounced than last year. When the Caps are playing with a lead in the third period and Jakub Vrana or Kuznetsov give up a turnover or take a bad line change, they see little playing time in the third period.

Now there are personnel decisions you can absolutely quibble with, which I will get to in the next question, but the team is buying what Laviolette is selling and I absolutely see consequences for players when they make mistakes. There has even been at least one practice that was halted because Laviolette didn't like the team's effort. He restarted practice after a team huddle with some NSFW words for the players.

Emily P. writes: Could you please give us your thoughts on Lavi's departure from and return to the Alex Ovechkin - Nick Backstrom - T.J. Oshie line?

I may be the wrong person to ask on this because I think that line is too slow for the modern NHL. They always find some success because there is just too much skill on that line not to, but ultimately I think the Caps are better off spreading out that skill a bit in the lineup and finding faster players to skate with those three. So ultimately, I am never surprised when this line is broken up because I think it should be broken up.

Was I surprised when Laviolette went back to it? Yes, but mostly because by doing so he was also going with Vrana, Kuznetsov, and Daniel Sprong together as a line and that made no sense to me at all.

None of those three players are great defensively. I will note that Sprong has been attacking the puck at the blue line and generating some turnovers as of late so it has improved, but overall, defense is not a strength for that line. As a result, they get almost no playing time in the third period when the team is ahead because Laviolette was trying not to lose a big lead and they kept making defensive mistakes and taking bad line changes.

To me, if a line isn't playing well enough defensively, they shouldn't be together. It is one thing to say a specific player should be better in his own end, but I don't know how you put those three together and then bench them for not being good enough defensively. That's like putting Ovechkin and Wilson on a line together and benching them for being too physical. What did you expect?

Sorry, I know you asked about Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie and I totally hijacked it to talk about another line altogether. It is hard to be critical of the lineup decisions Laviolette has made considering all the injuries he has had to juggle and the success the team has had regardless. Few coaches would have been able to handle the challenges Washington has faced as well as he has. Having said that, I don't know why you continue to put a line together you know you can't play in the third period while leading. You've handcuffed yourself by doing that.

William S. writes: Has there been any buzz about moving away from Kuz?  I love the quirky guy but his salary and random output just don’t add up for a cash-strapped team.  Slide Oshie into center, give Sprong more ice time. Work in some younger players. 

I have been getting this question a lot. The team is so thin at center right now it just does not make sense to move him during the season for all the reasons I listed in the earlier question on center depth.

There is no skating position more important than center so you cannot trade away Kuznetsov unless you are getting a top-six center as part of the deal, otherwise, you are punting on this season.

And if you think the team is better off with Oshie at center than Kuznetsov well ... we will just have to agree to disagree there. I do not see the Caps having much of a chance in a long playoff run of Oshie is playing center full time.

Douglas F. writes: I was wondering with the realization that Vitek Vanecek is definitely capable of being a No. 2 goalie behind Ilya Samsonov what does this mean for the Seattle expansion draft? You protect Samsonov and hope Seattle doesn't take Vanecek? Or you protect Samsonov and hopefully make a deal with Seattle to not pick him.

You have step 1 figured out: protect Samsonov. Even in his brief time back from the NHL’s COVID protocol list, you can see the potential is there and the ceiling remains higher than Vanecek’s. After that, you talk to Seattle, but not necessarily about Vanecek.

I know in 2017, general managers said “never again” after giving up too many assets to Vegas to steer them towards other players. The problem was that in many cases, the Golden Knights ended up with a better player plus all of those assets. The flat salary cap has changed the conversations around the 2021 expansion draft and put Seattle in a very similar position to Vegas. Teams will have no choice but to try to steer Seattle towards certain players in order to get significant cap space off the books.

If you are the Caps, you need Seattle to take a big contract off your hands. You cannot allow them to take a player like Vanecek, for example, because not only do you still have to shed salary, but you also have to replace that player and chances are he is going to be more expensive than Vanecek’s $716,667 which means this will actually take up more cap space that the team already does not have.. That’s why I look at a player like Oshie as an obvious candidate.

I know no one wants to lose Oshie, but the fact is they are going to have to shed salary somewhere. You don’t want to shed other players to protect a 34-year-old Oshie and watch him start to decline.

So, to answer your question, you protect Samsonov, then gauge Seattle’s interest in another player you want them to take such as Oshie and see what kind of assets you need to throw their way to make it happen.

Phillip M. writes: If a player's contract is up, do they need to be protected in the expansion draft? Ovechkin is without a contract now and if we wait until after the draft to re-sign him can we protect both T.J. Oshie and Daniel Sprong?

So just to clarify, Phillip is asking if the Caps need to protect Ovechkin if he is not re-signed until after the expansion draft. Obviously, no one is advocating not protecting Ovechkin and letting him walk. Nor is that likely to happen.

(MacLellan, for his part, said earlier this month that he wasn't concerned about the deal getting done even if he had no update. "We want him to finish his career here and I think he wants to finish his career here and at some point we’ll get it done,” he said.)

Based on what happened in 2017, history tells us no, pending unrestricted free agents do not need to be protected. Teams do not want to waste protecting players who could walk anyway once free agency starts and Seattle won't want to waste picks on players they could sign if they wait. Don't forget, Seattle will get to talk to pending free agents before the expansion draft so they will walk away with a good idea of who will be willing to sign and who will not. If you know a player definitely will or will not sign with you, then there's no point in selecting them in the draft. Just wait and sign them in free agency. There really is no point for either side to worry about that.

So back to Ovi: I would not be surprised to see a contract signed before the expansion draft and I would not be surprised if he signs right after. The reason why I lean more towards believing this is not what the Caps were planning all along is that if both sides reached an agreement tomorrow, I just cannot see MacLellan saying, hey let's not sign this yet and wait to see what happens with Seattle!

Something you also have to consider, however, is if it even makes sense to protect Oshie even if they can. The team needs to clear out a lot of cap space this offseason. If you keep Oshie, where is that extra space coming from?

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Robert K. writes: The Capitals will need to shed salary in order to re-sign Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana.  They seem to have the right side of the defense set for at least the foreseeable future with John Carlson, Justin Schultz and Nick Jensen and most of their defense prospects are left-handed.  Can you see a scenario where Dmitry Orlov is traded to free up some cap and open up a spot for Fehervary?  Also, is there any rule restricting the Capitals from trading Oshie to a team with cap space and then re-acquiring him with retained salary?  Oshie at $5.75 million looks bad but at 4 million he would be a bargain.

The moment the team re-signed Brenden Dillon, I felt that made Orlov expendable. The team has Dillon, Orlov, Michal Kempny, Jonas Siegenthaler, Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev. I am not even going to include Zdeno Chara because he is turning 44 this month, you already have too many bodies and at some point you have to rely on your prospects. The reckoning at left defense is coming and it probably has to come this offseason with all the salary the team needs to shed. For that reason, it would not surprise me to see Orlov moved.

As for trading for a player back, in a typical year I believe this would be legal unless there was salary retained in the original trade. The Penguins, for example, tried to reacquire Carl Hagelin after trading him to Los Angeles, but couldn’t because they retained salary in the original deal and that is why he is with the Capitals right now and not in Pittsburgh.

In 2017, however, the NHL decided teams could not reacquire players they had traded prior to the expansion draft until Jan. 2018. This would prevent teams from trying to circumvent the expansion draft. Since there is another expansion draft this year, I would assume the same rule applies. Even if it didn’t, however, and there is no specific rule preventing this, I have a hard time believing the Caps would be able to get away with this since it is 100% circumventing the salary cap. Every trade has to be approved by the NHL, I have to believe the league would find some way to veto this. You would also have to find a team willing to do this too and I don't think they could. No one gets angrier about teams circumventing the cap than other GMs.

Phillip M. writes: What do we do about the cap next year? Can you look at the projected contracts of  Ovechkin, Vrana, Ilya Samsonov, Conor Sheary, Zdeno Chara, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Jonas Siegenthaler? Could Dmitry Orlov, Richard Panik, Michal Kempny and Justin Schultz be enough to give them room to sign the above?

A lot to digest here. I'm not going to get into a projection for each player because there is half a season left and we are in a flat salary cap and that has led to a lot of unexpected cap hits. But I will try to give my general thoughts on the offseason as best I can.

First, I do not see Chara or van Riemsdyk coming back. Chara is 44 and at some point you have to give your prospects a chance to compete. Second, I am not letting Schultz go for van Riemsdyk. I would like van Riemsdyk to get more of a look than he has, but clearly he is No. 7/8 to Laviolette so I don't think it is worth the cap space to bring him back and I wouldn't replace anyone on the right side with him at this point, especially Schultz who has been great.

I talked about why the team could trade Orlov already. I keep hearing people say they should trade Panik, but why would a team make that trade? He has nine points this season in 29 games and carries a cap hit of $2.75 million for the next two years. Don't forget about the flat salary cap. Teams certainly aren't going to be lining up to trade for him and add more salary to the books for nine points in 29 games. As for Kempny, there is no trade to be made there. He is coming off his second major injury and didn't look all that great last season anyway.

So ultimately, no, I don't think your plan will work. Granted, this discussion changes drastically if the team flames out and MacLellan decides to rebuild. Then you trade away pretty much everything that isn't nailed down.


Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want answered in the next mailbag, send it in to capitalsmailbag@gmail.com