The Washington Capitals signed center Lars Eller to a five-year contract extension on the weekend, getting the third-liner for the exact same $3.5 million cap hit that he costs them right now. Clearly, the value is good for a big pivot who can kill penalties and kick in some offense here and there, but the bigger problem for GM Brian MacLellan will come this summer.
That’s when, barring some sort of miracle in the interim, star defenseman John Carlson heads to unrestricted free agency.
Carlson leads the Capitals in ice time (25:44 per game) and points by a blueliner (44 through 55 games). In fact, he’s third on the team in offense behind only Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while placing second in power play points – just one shy of Ovie’s 22 with the man advantage.
Carlson also carries a bargain cap hit this season of just under $4 million. And at 28 years old, with many NHL teams clamoring for a top-end right-shot defenseman, Carlson is poised to cash in big-time if he hits the market.
Now, Washington is in a strange situation right now. The Capitals are first in the messy Metropolitan Division after a summer that saw them lose a lot of depth due to a cap crunch and the Vegas expansion. We thought their Stanley Cup window had closed and with Tampa and Boston providing a pretty substantial roadblock in the Eastern Conference playoffs, perhaps it has been painted shut.
But unless MacLellan turns around and trades Eller at the deadline, it seems like Washington will be at full-strength heading into the post-season. So here’s my question: When does this franchise stop kicking the salary cap can a little further down the road?
The salary cap is expected to rise between $3 million and $5 million this summer. The former may be enough to get Carlson re-signed, while the latter would certainly do it. That is, until you factor in new contracts for youngsters such as Tom Wilson, Madison Bowey and Philipp Grubauer. Plus, you have to replace any UFAs you don’t keep, such as Jay Beagle, Taylor Chorney and Alex Chiasson (none of whom are very expensive right now).
In Grubauer, you have a pretty good backup goalie that would attract trade consideration (he’s ready for more responsibility and won’t get it with star Braden Holtby in town). But if you deal the German, you still need a replacement and Grubauer only makes $1.5 million this season, so how much cheaper can you get at that position?
If the Caps fall short of playoff glory again this year, it’s going to be due to depth. Looking ahead to next year, that depth is going to be sorely tested on the blueline, regardless of what happens with Carlson. Keep him and you’re hamstrung when it comes to bringing in more talent. Lose him and the burden on youngsters such as Bowey and Christian Djoos – not to mention old warhorse Brooks Orpik – gets beguiling.
When Washington failed to win the Cup again this past summer, MacLellan was refreshingly honest that he and his team had gone all-in, bringing in Kevin Shattenkirk and mortgaging the future in order to do so.
I suppose it would be silly to knock a first-place for re-signing a good player to a friendly deal, as is the case with Eller’s new pact, but I just have to wonder what the future plan is here. Are the Caps just going to let things unspool and hope the team makes a charge to the championship this year? In that case, it wouldn’t matter if Carlson came back or not; you’ve got your title. If they don’t win, are they hoping Carlson will settle for a hometown discount this summer, if he gets the maximum eight years that no other franchise can offer him?
It all seems like a dangerous game, but that’s where the Capitals find themselves right now.