For the first time in a long time, the Washington Capitals face a very difficult — and busy — offseason.
Not only does the team have a number of needs to address, from a top-6 center to a proven starting netminder, but Washington also has several pending restricted and unrestricted free agents who need new deals or will end up walking.
Perhaps one of the team’s biggest names is set to hit free agency on July 13 unless he gets a new deal: Justin Schultz. The right-hand defenseman has shown puck-moving potential and worked well with Trevor van Riemsdyk on the team’s third pairing this season. However, he does come with a price tag, as he carried a $4 million cap hit over the last two years in the District.
Taking all of that into account, will No. 2 be back in red next season?
Tough times followed Washington into the summer after the team’s fourth consecutive first-round exit. Nicklas Backstrom underwent left hip resurfacing surgery, the same kind that ended Ryan Kesler’s career. Although he is starting rehabilitation and faces a “lengthy” recovery, his NHL career hangs in the balance. Meanwhile Tom Wilson out until at least December as he recovers from ACL surgery.
And, following a tough year for Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, where neither young netminder could maintain consistency to take the reins in goal, the Capitals need a proven, experienced starter.
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Looking at the team’s offseason needs, there needs to be cap space to work with. Backstrom and Wilson can go on the long-term injured reserve, but a top-6 center to replace Backstrom won’t come cheap, and if the team wants to also bring in a high-scoring winger to fill in for Wilson until he returns in December, the team needs to clear salary. Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson are also UFAs.
Not only that, a proven No. 1 will also be expensive, and the team also needs to address a number of RFAs, including Samsonov and Vanecek. At this point, though, it looks like the team may have to choose one to stick with unless Washington wants to run with three netminders.
Plus, the team has a young, budding blueliner waiting in the AHL for his chance to make the jump. Lucas Johansen had a strong year in Hershey playing top-pairing minutes and also impressed in his NHL debut. The 2016 first-rounder has also shown the potential as a puck-mover. Alex Alexeyev was also in the running to make the transition to the NHL, but he underwent a surgical labral repair in his left shoulder and will likely miss training camp.
Not only that, Schultz could likely make more money elsewhere given he still has potential and a lot to offer, he likely won’t take a pay cut. Also, the Capitals can’t afford to give him a raise given the team’s offseason to-do list.
Given the circumstances and outstanding business, as well as the closing Stanley Cup window, bringing back Schultz doesn’t seem too likely, in my opinion. Trevor van Riemsdyk can play on the right side — that is, after all, his natural side, and Johansen can jump up into a key role on the left side. Plus, Washington wants to give its younger players their NHL chance, and this is the perfect opportunity.
However, there’s always a chance.