A season in which the Washington Capitals returned to the playoffs after hiring a new coach and improving their defense still resulted in the club failing to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998. Heading into the off-season, the Capitals' roster will have a different look for 2015-16.
GM Brian MacLellan has over $19.4 million in salary-cap space with several key free agents to re-sign. Topping the list is goaltender Braden Holtby, whose performance throughout this season ranks the 25-year-old among the NHL's top netminders. ESPN.com's Craig Custance cites Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky and Colorado's Semyon Varlamov as comparables, suggesting Holtby's new contract could be a long-term deal in the range of $6 million per season.
Holtby's new contract will determine what restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson receive, as well as which unrestricted free agents return next season. Among the latter are defensemen Mike Green and Tim Gleason, along with forwards Joel Ward, Eric Fehr and Jay Beagle.
Green's status will garner the most attention. A long-time member of the Capitals, the 29-year-old blueliner is coming off a three-year deal worth $6.08 million annually. Injuries have robbed Green of his once-explosive offensive style, but his defensive play has improved. His 45 points this season marked the first time he's reached that mark since his 76-point performance in 2009-10. Still, Green will have to accept a pay cut if he hopes to re-sign with the Capitals.
Green's puck-moving skills and right-handed shot could entice interest from several clubs seeking blueline depth. The Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings could be among the suitors. However, the New York Post's Larry Brooks considers Green a shell of himself who was a non-factor in the post-season, suggesting that could hurt his market value.
MacLellan could attempt to keep winger Ward in the fold. The 34-year-old winger posted solid numbers during the regular season (19 goals, 34 points), along with nine points in 14 post-season games playing on the top line. Gleason and Glencross, meanwhile, continued the Capitals' trend of ineffective trade-deadline acquisitions. They won't be re-signed.
In addition to sorting out his free agents, MacLellan must ensure he has sufficient cap space to address the Capitals' scoring depth. They remain largely a one-line team, relying on superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the bulk of their offense. As the New York Rangers effectively demonstrated in their second-round series, containing the Capitals' top line is key to grinding out a series win.
The Washington Post's Neil Greenberg believes the Capitals must stabilize the first-line right wing position, which in recent years has seen a carousel of players attempting to fill that role. Colleague Ben Raby shares that opinion. He also suggests Evgeny Kuznetsov may fill Washington's need for a second-line center.
Right wing options via free agency are limited this summer, with Martin St-Louis, Justin Williams and Drew Stafford currently the best available options. Better choices might be found via the trade market. The Toronto Maple Leafs could shop Phil Kessel this summer, but his hefty contract could put him out of the Capitals' price range. Another options is St. Louis Blues winger T.J. Oshie, who has a year remaining on his contract worth $4.25 million.
MacLellan could look to within to address his second-line scoring. Kuzentsov improved over the course of his rookie season and was impressive during the playoffs. Fellow rookie Andre Burakovsky split his time between the Capitals and their farm team this season but also acquitted himself well in the post-season.