The Washington Capitals are still less than a month removed from a rough end to the 2021-22 campaign that saw a fourth consecutive first-round exit following a year of inconsistency, adversity and more questions than answers going into the summer.
With the 2022 NHL Draft and free agency quickly approaching, Washington will have plenty to consider. And, looking at general manager Brian MacLellan’s comments from breakdown day, the Capitals could be quite active this summer. However, there are several factors that will determine the route they take this offseason.
Here are four circumstances the team has to consider:
Capitals’ Situation In Net Remains An Enigma
It’s no secret that Washington will be looking at goaltenders this offseason. The young tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek hasn’t found consistency, and neither could take the reins and secure the No. 1 job full-time. So, going into the summer, MacLellan noted that the team will “explore all options” when it comes to netminders.
Meanwhile, the Capitals also have to explore their options in-house. Both Samsonov and Vanecek are restricted free agents and require new contracts, and given the salary situation and the team likely wanting to bring in another netminder, the team may elect to hold on to just one.
So, it’s not exactly a matter of if the team brings in another netminder. It’s which netminder they’ll go with (proven No. 1, veteran or younger star on the rise).
So uh, Samsonov saved that Nylander shot pic.twitter.com/hoSbzla8bJ
— Joeu b (@SotoLamarKing) April 14, 2022
Not only that but Pheonix Copley is set to become a UFA. However, he is mainly with Hershey, and getting him a two-way extension shouldn’t be an issue. And, if he walks, the organization has goaltending depth to maintain a strong crease for the Bears.
Nicklas Backstrom’s Future With Capitals In Flux
Behind the goaltending situation, Nicklas Backstrom remains the biggest question mark for the Capitals going into the summer. The 34-year-old spent the first part of the 2021-22 campaign going through strenuous rehabilitation for a lingering hip injury. He still hasn’t fully recovered, and it started to make it uncomfortable to skate toward the end of the year.
“The hip’s not going to be 100 percent. That’s something we all know,” he explained. “Some days are good, some days are less good. That’s just life.”
Backstrom added that he has a lot of decisions to make regarding his next steps with Washington, but nothing is finalized yet. It is unclear whether that choice will be more rehab or surgery (he said “we’ll see”), and some even wonder if he could hang up the skates. Ultimately, though, his goal is to play and play comfortably.
Ultimately, that decision will have a major impact on the Capitals this offseason. If Backstrom won’t be ready for next year for whatever reason, the team could have to find another top center and power-play quarterback to replace him. The Swede carries a $9.2 million cap hit, and placing him on the LTIR would open up a lot of cap space to work with and potentially bring in a big name to help fill that void.
The team also wants Connor McMichael to hop into a bigger role next season and prefers to have him at center. So that will also play a part in the team’s plans down the middle.
Tom Wilson & Carl Hagelin Also Recovering
In addition to Backstrom, both Tom Wilson and Carl Hagelin are working toward comebacks from two respective, serious injuries.
Wilson will miss 6-8 months as he recovers from ACL surgery on his left knee. He suffered that injury in Game 1 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs and had attempted to come back and skate through it, though he never made it back as the Florida Panthers eliminated Washington in six games. Even if the team had a longer run, MacLellan said that Wilson likely wouldn’t have been able to play in a game again this postseason.
No. 43 made major strides in the 2021-22 campaign, dishing a career-high 24 goals, 28 assists and 52 points that earned him a tip to the 2022 NHL All-Star Game. With him out until likely at least December to open the season, the Capitals will be without not only one of its top-6 forwards but a strong physical presence and versatile player who can log heavy minutes at even strength and on special teams. And, like Backstrom, his absence may warrant the need to bring in more “star power” and a right-hand shot capable of production and two-way ability.
READ MORE ON WHN: Could Kadri Be An Option For Capitals Going Into Summer?
Hagelin, meanwhile, faces a different challenge. He suffered a ruptured choroid after taking a stick to the left eye during routine competition drills at practice. The injury resulted in two eye surgeries for Hagelin, who will struggle with depth perception and not get back 100 percent of his vision going forward.
However, despite the circumstances, he has been back on the ice and is determined to continue his career. He will rely on his right eye, training and practice to play in the NHL again.
With regard to No. 62, Washington doesn’t necessarily need to bring in a brand new replacement. The team has seen a lot of its youth, from Axel Jonsson-Fjallby to Aliaksei Protas, draw in and do a solid job. Plus, there is always the option of bringing back Johan Larsson, who fit in well on his fourth line with Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway.
Blue Line Contracts
Head coach Peter Laviolette and MacLellan liked what the blue line provided this season. Martin Fehervary stepped in and did a stellar job in his rookie year on the top pairing with John Carlson, who had his share of highs and lows. Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen proved to be a solid shutdown pair to round out the top-4, and Trevor van Riemsdyk’s versatility and ability proved clutch again as he filled in seamlessly on the left side and complemented Justin Schultz, who showcased his ability at both ends.
Washington will see a handful of blue line contracts expire at the end of the season, though, and may have to let go. Schultz, who had a cap hit of $4 million, will become a UFA. Michal Kempny ($2.5 million) and Matt Irwin ($750K) are also UFAs.
Given cap space and a number of questions to answer going into next year, the Capitals would save space if they released these names and filled those vacancies with players already in the system like Lucas Johansen or Alex Alexeyev.