Capitals GM under pressure to keep core together

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals. 

While Brian MacLellan certainly had a hand in putting together the Capitals’ core as an assistant, he also followed a path similar to Stan Bowman in Chicago: his job has been to maintain a supplement an established group, and deal with the salary cap headaches that arise from that juggling act.

In my opinion, MacLellan has done a mostly masterful job.

Sure, there were some gutters (*cough* Brooks Orpik *cough cough*) to go with the strikes, but MacLellan’s proven to be a strong hire after George McPhee’s extensive run ended. Saving money while possibly making the team better in certain areas isn’t the splashiest work, but he’s done well.

Yet, heading into next season and a bit beyond that, MacLellan will face probably his biggest pressure yet as Capitals GM.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Three Questions]

PHT has tackled this topic before, including in part today, but the Capitals face some truly monumental decisions about their future.

Most directly, both Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom enter contract years, and both stand to enjoy significant raises after being bargains for quite some time.

It’s fascinating enough if you oversimplify it to an either/or question: if the Capitals could only bring back one, which would make sense? Holtby’s been solid as a rock for the Capitals at the league’s most important (and unreliable) position, yet with Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price setting a $10M+ market for what a top goalie can make in unrestricted free agency, Holtby also stands to make a lot more money than his current $6.1M cap hit. It’s also difficult to put a price on Backstrom, but $6.7M is far too low, and while Holtby’s age (29) is a factor particularly considering the term Price and Bob received, Backstrom is 31 already.

If that wasn’t already complicated enough, Alex Ovechkin‘s seemingly eternal contract becomes mortal soon. His approx. $9.54M cap hit only runs through 2020-21, and his situation opens up a slew of questions, especially since he’s already 33.

This is all quite the riddle for MacLellan, and it’s not just about making objective hockey decisions. These are players who’ve meant a lot to the team and its fans, and have been instrumental in great successes. Merely having uncertainty surrounding Holtby and Backstrom could create headaches.

MacLellan faces some fascinating questions surrounding all of that:

  • How much should the Capitals work goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov into the mix? Might MacLellan be bold enough to roll the dice with far cheaper options in net? There’s evidence that the Capitals are reasonably analytics-leaning (see: Panik, and the continued employment of Tim “Vic Ferrari” Barnes), and some would argue that the savvy move is to go younger and cheaper in net. There’d be a lot of pressure on MacLellan either way: scorn if they move away from Holtby and the bottom falls out, and ridicule if they keep Holtby, Holtby falters, and the Capitals have to lose other key pieces because of the expense of re-signing Holtby. Tough stuff, right?
  • The Capitals are right up against the salary cap ceiling, but if there’s some breathing room around trade deadline time, is this a year to go all-in, even if it means coughing up a first-rounder or more? After all, you’re saying goodbye to some of your surplus of talent either in seeing one or more of Holtby/Backstrom leaving, or whoever must be moved out to accommodate new contracts. Maybe that’s your cue to swing for the fences?
  • Oh yeah, things could also get tricky with Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Overall, this is a Capitals team that still carries Stanley Cup expectations. MacLellan’s mostly wise decisions helped push them over the top for that elusive first ring, but the tests only seem to get harder from there.

How would you handle this pressure-packed predicament?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
• One deeper look at Holtby/Backstrom
• Adam Gretz’s take

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.