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From Ovechkin To Schultz: Explaining The Capitals’ Protected List

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The Capitals faced tough decisions with their protected list for the expansion draft.

The Washington Capitals faced a tall task when it came to their final protected list for the pending expansion draft. A plethora of skilled defensemen, trade rumblings and free agency led to some uncertainty and difficult decisions, but at the end of the day, 11 Capitals were protected from Seattle.

Brian MacLellan went the 7-3-1 route and protected seven forwards, three blueliners and one netminder safe from the reaches of the Kraken. Still, questions remained in regards to Washington’s list, including why Alex Ovechkin was left unprotected and why Trevor van Riemsdyk was protected over Justin Schultz or Brenden Dillon.

Here’s a deeper dive into the Capitals’ final protected list.

Why Did Capitals Leave Ovechkin Unprotected?

Washington finalized its protected list for the expansion draft on Saturday, but a major name was missing: Ovechkin.

Upon first glance, that’s enough to stir a bit of panic. However, there’s no reason for Capitals fans to be nervous — and also no reason for fans to go over to shop.nhl.com and buy a custom Ovechkin Seattle Kraken jersey (unless you want to just make an incredible meme). In fact, the decision is one that makes major sense for Washington. Here’s more on the situation at hand and why No. 8 is up for grabs — as well as why it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

First off, let’s start with Ovechkin’s UFA status. His famous 13-year, $124 million contract from 2008 is set to expire on July 28, one week after the expansion draft. He didn’t sign a new deal before the roster freeze, and the expansion draft is likely the reason for that. Because the Capitals didn’t sign Ovechkin, they can leave him exposed and protect another player since Seattle wouldn’t have a deal to take him with.

Can the Kraken still select UFAs? Of course they can, but 20 of their 30 chosen players need to be under contract next year. Seattle can negotiate with unprotected pending free agents starting Sunday before the expansion draft. If anyone reciprocates interest, the Kraken can select them. If not, they just move on.

So, technically speaking: yes, Seattle can choose Ovechkin. Will they? Probably not.

Ovechkin expressed numerous times that he wants to re-sign with Washington and finish his career with the Capitals, and the feeling is mutual for the team. Seattle can reach out and gauge the captain’s interest in signing with the team, but he’d likely say no. That being the case, the Kraken would likely just carry on with their business and select another player and leave Ovechkin out of the conversation.

Still, there’s no rule saying they can’t take him, regardless of negotiations, so they could still select him if they really wanted to just have the chance to say he was on the roster for a moment. However, after a week, he could just return to free agency and sign a new deal with the Capitals. If that happened, the Kraken would not get another selection because Ovechkin walked.

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“When you think of the Washington Capitals, you think of Alex Ovechkin. So no, I don’t [see him not returning],” T.J. Oshie, who earned the seal of protection, said at the end of the season. “I do know that things like this do happen in sports with legendary-type players moving teams toward the end of their career, but I think Ovi loves it here. I think Ovi wants to stay here forever, I think they want him here forever.”

Does Protecting Kuznetsov Put An End to Trade Talks?

Evgeny Kuznetsov was one of the seven forwards protected, and for good reason. He’s a top-line center and capable of producing upwards of 70 points per season. However, this doesn’t necessarily put an end to trade speculation.

It’s unclear whether or not there have been developments between either party; Vladimir Tarasenko had reportedly been on the Capitals’ radar last week, but the Russian RW was ultimately exposed to Seattle. Kuznetsov could very well get another chance to prove his worth on the Capitals next season, or he could find himself on the move at some point this offseason.

Regardless, by protecting him, the Capitals keep him from walking for nothing in return. Kuznetsov is too talented to just surrender to the Kraken, and despite off-ice troubles and bouts of inconsistency, his skill-set speaks for itself. He’s also a player who can attract interest and command a reasonable return.

Washington isn’t the only team to protect a trade trip; Buffalo did the same thing with Jack Eichel.

Why did Brian MacLellan Choose To Protect TVR As The Third Defenseman?

Van Riemsdyk had a small sample size in 2020-21, playing in just 20 games. However, he showed a lot of upside in that small sample size and took great care of the puck, while also moving the puck efficiently and being a dominant presence at even strength and special teams. He has top-4 potential and is a right-handed blueliner who has a cap hit of $950K over the next two seasons.

Schultz is a major asset and power-play quarterback who can log big minutes and contribute a lot of offense. However, he comes at a cap hit of $4 million for one more season. Dillon, a commanding physical presence and another second-pairing d-man, carries a $3.9 million AAV over the next three years. Nick Jensen, another impressive RHD, costs $2.5 million per year through 2023. Michal Kempny was also made available, but given his injury troubles, he likely isn’t high on Seattle’s radar — though it does appear he’s getting ready for a comeback.

By protecting TVR, MacLellan elected to hold onto a defenseman who can flourish under Peter Laviolette. Van Riemsdyk is also an experienced player and one who’s known to capitalize on his opportunities. He could be a major difference-maker next season and can provide what Schultz or Jensen does for a lower price. And, by exposing those players to Seattle, MacLellan can clear cap space to re-sign Ovechkin and potentially explore the market.

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