The NHL is ready to release the Seattle Kraken, but questions remain who stays or goes for the Washington Capitals as the expansion draft looms.
The Capitals have a few loose ends to tie off before the draft, or they could use the draft as a solution. Alex Ovechkin needs a new deal, Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s future hangs in the balance, and T.J. Oshie is among the top names who could be left unprotected.
The Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft is July 21.
For starters, the Capitals have two options. They can protect either a total of eight skaters (forwards or defensemen) and one goalie, or protect a total of seven forwards, three defensemen, and one netminder. Given the Capitals’ thin blue line, it’s more than likely Washington will go with the 7-3-1 option.
It obviously offers more flexibility and will help the team protect more of the talented forwards.
So, who gets the Washington Capitals seal of protection?
Nicklas Backstrom has a no-movement clause, so he’s one of those seven forwards. Check.
Believe it or not, Ovechkin’s pending free agency gives the Capitals some breathing room. With Ovechkin’s help, Capitals GM Brian McClellan can game the system, and it’s perfectly legal. The pair can wait until after the expansion draft to handle Ovechkin’s extension (both parties have made it clear they want an agreement). The move would expose Ovechkin’s rights to Seattle, but if he doesn’t sign by July 28, Ovechkin becomes a UFA able to sign with the Capitals.
Seattle GM Ron Francis isn’t a dummy. He knows that would be a wasted pick.
Let’s get something out of the way first. Oshie was a popular candidate to go to Seattle as a native of Washington State. However, he openly expressed that he’d like to stay with the Capitals. And although MacLellan didn’t explicitly say he’d protect Oshie, he’s aware of how valuable the 34-year-old blood-and-guts winger is to the organization.
“He continues to produce. He continues to be a big part of what’s going on in the room and on the ice. He’s a big part of our organization,” MacLellan said on exit day. “It would hurt our team and our organization if we lost him in the expansion draft… ideally, we’d like to keep him around.”
Oshie is the heart of the Capitals locker room, hands down. Even Peter Laviolette has referred to him as “the ultimate teammate,” thanks to his enthusiasm, leadership, and contagious personality. On the ice, he’s consistent. He’s dangerous and extremely skilled. He led Washington with 18 power-play goals this year and hit the 20-goal mark for the third straight season.
Tom Wilson and Anthony Mantha should be safe. Wilson’s one of the faces of the franchise and well-liked in the dressing room. He’s Washington’s signature tough guy and one of their leading scorers that can produce and get under people’s skin. The Capitals just gave up major pieces for Mantha, and he’s fit in well so far; Mantha is not going anywhere, either.
That leaves three remaining spots on MacLellan’s protected list. Under expansion draft rules, Washington must expose at least two forwards under contract for 2021-22 and played at least 40 NHL games this past season or 70 NHL games over the last two years.
The remaining eligible forwards are the remaining three spots: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway, Conor Sheary, and Daniel Sprong.
We’re circling Kuznetsov, Sheary, and Sprong for those final spots, and not just to torture Pittsburgh Penguins fans.
While Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway, and Carl Hagelin make up one of the league’s best fourth-line combinations, they’re not going to be as high on the Kraken’s list as a player like Kuznetsov or Sprong.
It’s not easy taking Kuznetsov over Eller, especially after Kuznetsov’s disappointing 2020-21 performance and lack of reassurance from MacLellan. However, Washington can’t let a prime trade chip walk away for nothing. The 29-year-old is usually a 70-point player and has All-Star ability.
The Capitals can ultimately seek a trade if his struggles persist, but leaving an elite first-line pivot exposed would be a blunder.
There is little doubt Eller is a vital part of Washington’s lineup. He’s a part of the power play and penalty kill, plays a strong 200-foot game and can win draws to boot. However, injuries and inconsistency over time are a concern, and the team has enough depth down the middle to fill a 3C void. Connor McMichael could be ready to make a case for a roster spot come October, and the Capitals also just re-signed centers Garrett Pilon and Michael Sgarbossa.
Beyond those three, they also have Brian Pinho and Aliaksei Protas in the system and 2020 first-round pick Hendrix Lapierre.
Now it comes down to which wingers to protect, and it’ll be Sprong and Sheary over Hathaway and Hagelin.
Sprong has well… sprung since the Christian Djoos trade. He met Peter Laviolette’s expectations and earned himself a permanent spot in the lineup while logging top-line minutes. The 24-year-old is a major threat on offense and owns a lethal shot. Through 42 games, he had 20 points and finished second in even-strength scoring (13 goals) and shooting percentage (17.6).
As for Sheary, he made the most of his one-year deal with Washington and earned himself a two-year extension. He’s a versatile player who brings a lot of energy while playing a smart overall game. His 25 takeaways ranked fourth on the team, and he gave up the puck just eight times (least among Capitals with 21 GP). Sheary also finished fourth in goals (14) and was tied with Carl Hagelin for second in rush attempts (7). The small winger with Stanley Cup rings more than earned an extended stay.
Ultimately, the Capitals will have to give up a roster player, but the game is to minimize the loss. The league did enough charity work for Vegas. Now it’s about protecting the remaining chances at the Cup.
Sprong and Sheary over Hagelin do that.