In Part 1 of this month’s Capitals mailbag, I’m answering your questions about the pressing matters, such as the health of Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson and how that impacts the team’s short- and long-term plans. In Part 2, which will be published soon, I’m fielding your big picture queries.
Thanks again for participating; we set a mailbag record with nearly 90 responses.
And away we go.
I imagine a lot of the Caps’ moves this offseason up front will depend on the health of Nicklas Backstrom. Have you heard anything in terms of surgery for him, retirement (please no) or more rehabbing and just prayers to get him ready for next year/beyond? — Brett P.
If by “a lot” you mean “all” then, yes, Backstrom’s prognosis is going to be critical. It’s a delicate subject, obviously; Backstrom means so much to this franchise. It’s also complicated and figures to involve Caps’ medical team as well as outside specialists.
Eventually, Backstrom will need to settle on the next course of action, if he hasn’t already. A second surgery since 2015? Rigorous rehab? Exotic treatments? Does he even want to go through another year like this last one? Based on his comments a couple of weeks ago, it sounded like he’s exploring several avenues and that all options are on the table.
Nicklas Backstrom is not sure what the next course of action will be for his hip. Rehab? Surgery? Sounds like it’s all on the table but he’s still hopeful of getting closer to where he needs to be. That said, “the hip is not going to be 100-percent.” #Caps
— Tarik El-Bashir (@Tarik_ElBashir) May 15, 2022
General manager Brian MacLellan reiterated those sentiments. He’ll need to know sooner than later what direction things are headed. The draft is slated for July 7-8 and free agency begins July 13. Everything the Caps do this summer will be dictated by Backstrom’s health and, by extension, what the team expects its 2022-23 cap situation to look like.
Do you feel Backstrom is more likely to retire or return next season? — Perry S.
I don’t see Backstrom retiring and forfeiting the millions of dollars remaining on his contract, which runs through the 2024-25 season. On breakdown day, the 34-year-old said, “I want to be back. I want to be back to normal, not worrying about this.” So it sounds like he’s going to exhaust all options. If he can get the hip to where it will allow him to still be effective, it sounds like he’s going to try to do that. If that’s not possible, that’s where things get interesting. I’m planning a more detailed story on what that could look like in the near future, if that is indeed how the situation unfolds. Right now, however, it feels like we’re a ways from that.
Any reason the Caps shouldn’t put Backstrom on The Nikita Kucherov Plan? Get healthy and see you next playoffs, Nicky! — Jared H.
Yes, there is. One reason would be that doctors (and Backstrom) come to the conclusion that he can’t do it anymore. Another would be the league; I don’t think it’s as easy to circumvent the cap as some might believe.
What’s your sense of where the team seems to be leaning regarding Backstrom? Obviously, his health isn’t what it once was, but can we even replace him at second-line center? I don’t think Lars Eller is a great option for the top 6, and Connor McMichael doesn’t seem like he’s ready for that kind of role yet down the middle. Free agency is an option, but free agent signings are always a gamble. How serious do you think the Caps are about moving on from Nicky? — John L.
MacLellan said on breakdown day that another year like this one is not feasible — for the player or the team.
“I don’t think so,” the veteran GM said, asked if the situation was sustainable. “Not the way it is. It’s hard for him to play.”
So, yeah, it’s serious.
There are lots of moving parts, particularly with Tom Wilson (knee surgery) now sidelined until December/January at the earliest.
That said, I wouldn’t be shocked to see McMichael get a crack at the second-line center job. Both MacLellan and coach Peter Laviolette mentioned earlier this month that they see McMichael as a pivot and deserving of a bigger role next season. Does that mean the Caps go Evgeny Kuznetsov, McMichael, Eller and Nic Dowd down the middle? Perhaps.
Do the Caps move on from Eller to make room for McMichael at third-line center? Or does Backstrom’s injury mean they hold onto him? — Chris H.
Backstrom’s injury would make moving Eller risky, I think. Unless, of course, you’re packaging Eller in a deal that nets another middle-six center.
So, Nazem Kadri? If Backstrom is retiring or going on long-term injured reserve, the fit for the Caps in terms of position, style of play, playoff performance, and even age relative to other UFAs is almost too perfect. What do you think his market will be? — Paul S.
MacLellan said he wants the team to get younger. Signing a player who’ll turn 32 before the start of next season (and figures to have a ton of leverage after a career-high 87 points) does not help in that regard. Also, Evolving Hockey projects the annual average value of Kadri’s next deal to be north of $8 million.
What upgrades, other than at goalie, do the Capitals need to make to become true Cup contenders? What additions are in the realm of possibility given our cap constraints? — Tyler A.
For me, it starts in goal. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have been given ample opportunity to prove they can be No. 1 goaltenders. It hasn’t happened. And thus, MacLellan must acquire one, either via free agency or trade. I also think the Caps need another top-six winger … and that was before Wilson’s injury news.
If one of Wilson or Backstrom (or both) winds up starting the season on LTIR, would you anticipate a big signing with the newfound cap space, even though the team would have to deal with cap gymnastics upon their return? — Joseph P.
Yes, if Backstrom is out long-term, I do think a big signing is on the table, especially if McMichael is penciled in as the second-line center. MacLellan has never shied away from making a splash, and Johnny Gaudreau is an unrestricted free agent. Just sayin’. Buuuttt before you get too excited, remember that Gaudreau turns 29 in August and is almost certainly going to break the bank as the top free agent on the market.
There’s also that 40-goal scorer in Nashville whom the Caps drafted 11th overall in 20… oh never mind.
Seriously, though, after four straight first-round exits, the time for nibbling around the edges has passed. It’s time to go big if, of course, the plan is still to surround Alex Ovechkin will enough talent to contend, which is how it sounds.
If Backstrom goes on IR and ideally rehabs and returns healthy for the playoffs and Carl Hagelin has to call it quits because of his eye, the Caps could have upwards of $12 million in cap space. How would you spend it? — Ed T.
If I’m running the Caps, procuring a proven goaltender ranks at the very top of my list. After that, I’m targeting a fast, top-six winger who’s still got plenty of tread left on the tires. I’d backfill the opening for a bottom-six winger internally, with Joe Snively and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby the leading candidates.
Who is the defenseman from the roster system most likely to step into a top-6 role next season? — Adam C.
Assuming John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen and Martin Fehervary are your top four — and pending unrestricted free agent Justin Schultz is not re-signed — then you’re looking for a left shot to line up next to Trevor van Riemsdyk. My sense is that the Caps were relatively happy with their performance of the blue line … up until the group’s postseason struggles, that is. The top internal options to fill the opening are Alex Alexeyev and Lucas Johansen. MacLellan, of course, could also go outside the organization and bring in a veteran, who would then either slot next to TvR or push Fehervary for playing time in the top four.
In your opinion, was Johan Larsson the right fit for the fourth line when you had Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, who I thought was faster and a better fit with Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway? I thought this was a mistake in the lineup and Larsson added very little in his short time, other than some bad penalties and a lack of speed. — Adam C.
I mean, I understand why the move was made. MacLellan wanted a proven, defense-first winger to replace Hagelin, a veteran of 11 seasons. Experience means a lot, particularly in the postseason. And Larsson has nearly 500 regular-season games on his resume, while AJF has just 23. Did it work? In retrospect, perhaps AJF’s speed could have helped vs. the fleet-footed Panthers.
The Caps just announced Tom Wilson is out 6-8 months with a repaired ACL. How does that impact offseason moves, if at all? — Ke W.
It has a huge impact, and it throws another layer of uncertainty into an already complex offseason. First, though, the Caps need to figure out Backstrom’s situation. Then, they need to secure a No. 1 goalie. And after that, they’ll need to add some top-six firepower, all while knowing that Wilson (and his $5-plus million cap hit) will be back at some point around the holidays. Yeah, fun times.
How does management view Lucas Johansen? He seemed all but done in Washington, partially because he couldn’t stay healthy. He stayed healthy this year, and seems to have put together a fairly solid season, even grabbing a cup of coffee in the NHL in the middle of the year. What’s next for him, where does he fit in the depth chart, and what does management think of his development, potential and future? — Mike S.
Johansen, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, salvaged his career this past winter. He’s back on the radar. Does that mean he’s guaranteed a job with the big club? No. But I suspect he’ll have a shot, along with Alexeyev, of earning the spot on the left side of TvR. If that were to happen, the Caps would have four blue-liners in their early 30s (Carlson, Orlov, Jensen and TvR) and two in their early 20s (Fehervary and either Johansen or Alexeyev). You’d have to imagine that for Johansen or Alexeyev to stick, they’d need to be the No. 6 and not the extra, which is a position more suited to a veteran.
Johansen, by the way, is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, per Cap Friendly.
Out of our long lost sons, which one do you feel is most likely to return this offseason?
Forsberg would be a great story, but I don’t see it happening. I don’t envision the others as realistic possibilities, either.
Which do you think is more likely: big free agent signing or big draft day trade? — John Z.
My gut says a big free-agent signing is the more likely possibility.
Will Braden Holtby ever come home? — E F.
I don’t see it happening. Also: he turns 33 in September and finished the season on injured reserve.
Do you think Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanacek will be back next season, or do you think both will be gone? — John T.
My gut tells me only one will be back. The question is which one? The high-end prospect who is prone to losing focus (Samsonov) or the grinder who is limited by size and athleticism (Vanecek)? Both are restricted free agents with arbitration rights.
Do you see the Caps signing Evgeni Malkin to a three-year contract if Backstrom retires? — Sam B.
I do not. Age is not everything, but if the team’s stated goal is to “get younger” you can’t do that by committing three years to a player who turns 36 in July.
Any chance coach Peter Laviolette gets replaced? Perhaps with former Hershey bench boss and current Toronto Maple Leafs assistant Spencer Carbery, who was the architect of the NHL’s top power play last season? — Justin H.
Nope on Laviolette being fired. MacLellan wouldn’t comment on Laviolette’s contractual status on breakdown day, but he’s believed to be entering the final year of a three-year that pays him nearly $5 million annually. As for a Carbery reunion? I suspect he’d only return as the head coach … so down the road.
I sure didn’t think the Tampa-Florida series flattered the Caps. What’s your take? I didn’t watch much, but read Andrei Vasilevskiy had an amazing .980 save percentage. Did that series underscore the need for top goalie for sustained success in playoffs? — Andy B.
A staggering .981, in fact. Haha.
The Caps didn’t lose to the Panthers strictly due to goaltending. They lost because they couldn’t close out the kinds of games that veteran-laden teams should. That said, the starting goalies posted save percentages of .938, .737, .967, .906, .868 and .871. Very good. Bad. Great. Decent. Meh. And Meh. All season, Laviolette talked about how he was looking for more consistency from his two young goaltenders. And, somewhat predictably, the postseason went just like the regular season.
If MacLellan has any regrets, it’s probably that he didn’t ante up for a veteran goalie at the deadline (though, to be completely fair, the market wasn’t particularly strong).
(Photo of Nicklas Backstrom: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)