Expansion Draft Preview: Washington Capitals

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

The Washington Capitals are one of the teams that Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis and his professional scouts will be paying very close attention to in the lead-up to the 2021 Expansion Draft. The Caps have managed their roster with a priority on hanging on to quality players, seemingly ignoring any draft-related consequences, and that means there are several potentially juicy options available for the Kraken.

There are some hurdles to get over first, however. We’ll get to those, and look at the Caps roster, their protected list, who is available, and who might make the best choice as Seattle’s selection. But before we do anything else we have to address the biggest issue concerning the Capitals: Alex Ovechkin is, as of this writing, still going to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. And it will likely stay that way. Let’s begin…

The Ovechkin Question

Ovechkin was drafted by the Caps #1 overall back in 2004. After a year polishing his one-timer in the KHL with Moscow Dynamo, it was straight to the top line on the Washington roster for what is now a 16-year career in the NHL. Ovechkin is a Cap, he’s going to stay a Cap, and he’ll retire a Cap. So why are we even talking about this?

Because it’s highly likely that Ovechkin will be left unprotected in the expansion draft. That’s not a typo: he will likely be left unprotected. It’s the move that makes the most sense for Washington, as it allows them to protect an additional forward without the risk of losing Ovechkin to Seattle. Here’s how.

Ovechkin doesn’t use an agent. He and the GM and owner of the Capitals discuss contract matters directly. They have already had initial discussions about renewing his contract for next year and possibly beyond, but nothing is formalized yet. And they won’t; they will deliberately not sign Alex Ovechkin until after the expansion draft.

What they will do instead is, come to a handshake agreement about the terms of his next contract, allow Ovechkin to remain an unrestricted free agent, and leave him exposed in the expansion draft. Without a contract for next year, even if Seattle were to choose him, he could — and with near-biblical certainty, would — sign with Washington again once free agency opened up. It would be a wasted pick — and Ron Francis knows that.

So that’s the way this will go down, and that’s the reason you will not see Ovechkin on Washington’s list of protected players for the expansion draft. Despite being available, in practical terms he’s off the table for the Kraken in July. Now on to the bigger kettle of fish…

Another Bad Choice

I’m going to put my head in the lion’s mouth with this one, as it’s a much-discussed topic and a hot-button issue for some Seattle Kraken fans. Nonetheless, here goes…

The Kraken should forget about selecting T.J. Oshie from the Capitals in the expansion draft.

“WHAT?!? He’s FROM here! He’s our native son! He’s a Pacific Northwest ambassador!” That’s all very well and good. But you don’t draft hockey players for public relations. You draft hockey players to play hockey. So let’s take a look at that.

The one thing Oshie has going for him is, for his age he is still producing remarkably well. He has 20 points in 30 games so far this season, and although his minus-7 rating is a little troublesome, it would be disingenuous to say that he was “slowing down.” The numbers just don’t support that assertion.

But the key phrase in that first sentence is, ‘for his age’ — Oshie will be 34 years old at the time of the expansion draft. That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker; the fact that he is signed for an additional four years very much is. Add to that the $5.75 million AAV price tag and we’re inching very close to dangerous territory here.

However the real nail in the coffin is injuries, and specifically concussions. Oshie has had five concussions in his NHL career, making him highly susceptible to additional concussions down the road. So we’d be paying over $22 million for a four-year commitment to somebody who is one enthusiastic sneeze away from LTIR. That would be risky even before the flat-cap era; now that we’re in an environment where the salary cap won’t be budging for the foreseeable future, it would be nothing short of financial malfeasance.

If we’re going to pay $5.75 million for a hockey player, we need to be certain that he has the best chance of playing hockey for the duration of his contract. That isn’t the case with this individual. So I don’t care where he’s from or how much goodwill he’ll bring to the organ-eye-zation: drafting T.J. Oshie is a bad hockey decision, and for that reason the Kraken should dismiss the idea outright.

Protected List

Okay, that’s the bad news. The good news is, the Washington Capitals have been signing players like the expansion draft was just a fairy tale that would never come true, and that means there are legitimate quality players available in the forward and defensive ranks, and even a netminder who deserves consideration.

In forming the protected list we have followed some general guidelines, but more than most teams we have relied on local media in the D.C. area to provide insight on which players are part of the Capitals’ future. So, we begin by asserting that the Capitals will follow the 7-3-1 protection scheme, and the following players will be protected:

Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom (NMC), Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, Garnet Hathaway, Daniel Sprong

Defense: John Carlson, Justin Schultz, Brendan Dillon

Goaltender: Ilya Samsonov

Some notes about these lists before we get too far down the road. Forward Conor Sheary could be extended before the expansion draft, and if that happens he will likely bounce Daniel Sprong off the protected list. Also, center Nic Dowd is essentially interchangeable with RW Garnet Hathaway, so you may see one or the other name in there when the final list is submitted.

The Caps have 7 defensemen signed through 2022 and beyond, which does make you wonder — did they forget that there was going to be an expansion draft this year? Most other teams are managing their rosters to limit the number of players signed past this season; Washington extended the 7th d-man on the depth chart to a 2-year extension last week.

At any rate, the names on our protected list are 3 of their top 4 blueliners, and from an on-ice performance perspective represent the 3 defensemen the Capitals can least afford to lose. There is the possibility that Schultz or Dillon drops off in favor of youngster Jonas Siegenthaler, but based on his slowed development the last two seasons I consider that a long shot.

One more surprising note: every single player the Caps put on the ice every night is eligible for the expansion draft. Nobody they’re using regularly is in the “exempt” category. That’s the first time we’ve seen that, and we’re approaching the half-way point in this series of articles.

No Thank You

In addition to Oshie, there are a few players on the Caps that are either 1) too expensive, 2) not performing, 3) too old, or 4) fall into two or more of the aforementioned categories. As such, we will be dismissing the possibility of selecting any of the following players:

Forwards: Richard Panik

Defensemen: Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny

Goaltender: Phoenix Copley

And, again, surprisingly, all of those players are under contract through next year or later.

Who’s Left?

When you discard the aged and infirm, the remaining choices available to the Kraken will actually make this a difficult decision for Ron Francis and his staff.

LW Carl Hagelin, $2.75 million AAV, signed through 2023. If you’re paying this much for a third-line winger, he had better come with some amazing numbers. But to get the picture on Hagelin, and why he is likely the leading contender for selection from the Capitals, you need to look at the aggregate. 635 regular season games played, 274 points, and a combined plus-106 for his career. Add to that 23 points in 75 playoff games; and we would be remiss if we didn’t mention his two Stanley Cup rings from his back-to-back championships with Pittsburgh. It’s the entire package with this 32-year-old, and it’s going to be hard to pass that up.

C Nic Dowd, $750,000 AAV, signed through 2022. A little younger, a lot cheaper, and when he’s on a decent team Dowd has some respectable numbers. In his 3 seasons with Washington he has logged 151 games, notched 45 points, and posted a combined plus-27. He’s centering the 4th line currently, and is delivering a 56% face-off win percentage this season. If the Kraken need to fill out the bottom six, they could do a lot worse, and the price is right.

RD Nick Jensen, $2.5 million AAV, signed through 2023. Dollar for dollar, Jensen is head of the defensive class once you get past the big-dollar blueliners in the top pairings. He plays a stay-at-home style, contributing to the scoresheet once in a while; but he logs solid minutes on the penalty kill every night and gets the job done in his own zone. Nothing flashy, but a solid — if slightly pricey — choice for a middle or bottom pairing right-shot defenseman.

RD Trevor Van Riemsdyk, $950,000 AAV, signed through 2023. For a different GM this right-shot defenseman would land on the “No Thank You” list, but once again we have a Carolina Connection. Van Riemsdyk didn’t just play for the Hurricanes; during the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft Ron Francis put together a side deal to acquire TVR from (not Las) Vegas after they selected him from Chicago. Ultimately he proved to be a disappointment in Carolina, never coming close to earning the $2.3 million he was signed for, so I’m hoping Francis takes a pass. But, then again, if we end up drafting James Van Riemsdyk from Philly, it would be kinda fun to have them on the same team for the first time.

G Vitek Vanecek, $716,667 AAV, signed through 2022. 13-5-3 record this year, .911 save percentage, 2.66 GAA, what’s not to like? You actually have to dig into Vanecek’s stats a bit to find out what the knock on him is: inconsistency. 6 times this season Vanecek has given up 4 or more goals, and the Caps lost every one of those games. During a stretch in February he allowed 15 goals over 4 consecutive starts, the worst of which being 4 goals against on 14 shots before being yanked in the 2nd period. Vanecek is cheap, and his remaining contract his short; those both work in his favor. But the Kraken will need to decide whether he is a better value, and fills a more important need, than the other available choices.

And The Winner Is…

The Kraken. Honestly, with decent choices in all 3 categories, the decision on who they ultimately select really is going to depend a lot on what the Kraken are in need for. Most teams will have very few decent choices available; Seattle would do well to select from those teams first, save their selection from Washington until close to the end, then fill in the holes they need.

If it were me, and there were no other considerations, it would be either a draft-and-trade play for Vanecek to acquire more scoring from another team; or if we’re choosing for the Kraken then it would have to be Hagelin. Despite the high price tag, the intangibles that Hagelin brings are worth well beyond the amount he gets paid. They don’t hand out Stanley Cup rings at a kiosk in the mall.

Get a look for yourself at the selections from the Capitals’ roster this weekend when they play the Rangers on a national broadcast. Game time is 9am Pacific, Sunday, March 28th, on NBC.

Author: Tim Currell

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