What will the Caps' lineup look like by the end of next season?
With the dust still settling on the Washington Capitals' most recent early playoff exit, the only thing left for fans to do is turn towards the future. Exactly what the Caps will look like in a couple of years, however, is very much open for debate.
It is clear that things in Washington have to change. Making the playoffs—something of a given the past six seasons as the Caps have just mauled the other teams in the soon-to-be-defunct Southeast Division—in and of itself is going to be a tough chore for the Caps.
Instead of bludgeoning the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers, for the 2013-14 season the Caps will have to contend with new (or old depending on how long your memory is) divisional rivals who will present a much more formidable challenge.
In addition to the Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Caps will have to contend with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils next season.
All of these teams are good. The Pens might very well be defending Stanley Cup champions next season.
If this was the World Cup, then the Caps' new division would absolutely be the Group of Death.
Can the Caps compete? There are many who think this team is very far away from being able to challenge for the Stanley Cup. The Washington Post recently re-printed an interview with Jason LaCanfora, who covered the Caps for many years.
LaCanfora had some very pointed comments about the team he used to cover and he does not feel the Caps are anywhere close to a Stanley Cup. After watching this team for over 30 years and covering them here on Bleacher Report for the past year-and-a-half, I have to agree with LaCanfora to a certain extent.
Whatever the case, I believe it is safe to assume that the Caps' roster will go through some changes over the next season and, in all likelihood, some pretty significant ones. The team almost has no other option if it hopes to be able to compete in what looks to be the toughest division in the NHL.
Free agency is just part of the puzzle. If one looks at the Caps' roster, there are several players there—or who could be there soon—who might very well end up being traded away before the 2013-14 season ends.
In this article, I'll take a look at the five Capitals players most likely to be traded away prior to the end of the 2013-14 season.
I know that this is a really pessimistic angle to take—but after Fillip Forsberg was traded away, you really can't rule out further bone-headed decisions from general manager George McPhee.
Trading away Evgeny Kuznetsov—the best prospect in the entire Caps organization— would appear to be one of those decisions dripping with such stupidity that it should immediately cost McPhee his job. While it would appear that way on the surface, when one looks at things a bit more closely, the reasoning why Kuznetsov is one of the Capitals most likely to be traded becomes apparent.
If Kuznetsov is traded, it absolutely will have nothing to do with his skill or talent. This kid has it. Whatever that "it" factor is, Kuznetsov has got it in spades.
Watch the video in this slide and you will notice Kuznetsov's exceptional stick-handling skills. He can deke as well as any prospect in the Caps' entire organization and he has a great shot. His decision-making is at an NHL caliber already.
I also believe Kuznetsov has demonstrated great passing ability and even though he is about to turn only 21, he is already showing some very promising traits for being an unselfish player.
In short, the young center can do it all. He can skate with the best of them, pass, score, make plays, has fantastic vision and has even improved his game on defense and as a penalty killer.
His stats this past season while playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL certainly demonstrate his potential. He had 19 goals and 25 assists in 51 games during the regular season. In 25 playoff games, Kuznetsov had five goals and six assists, including one in the KHL Championship where Traktor fell in six games to Dynamo Moscow.
So with all this talent and skill why would the Caps trade Kuznetsov? Because it is not at all certain that Kuznetsov will ever come to D.C. and play for the Caps. It was roughly a year ago that Kuznetsov announced he would be staying in Russia for two more seasons.
Earlier this year though, Kuznetsov stated that he would come and play for the Caps after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
Naturally, there is no guarantee this will happen and Kuznetsov could very well change his mind and decide to remain in Russia. With the Caps' repeated playoff failures, combined with the constant scrutiny that fellow Russian Alexander Ovechkin endures, the idea of staying in Russia might not be as bad as it sounds.
For McPhee, this then becomes a difficult nightmare. Does he stand pat and believe that Kuznetsov is a man of his word and will play for Washington sometime in 2013-14—or does McPhee trade him away sooner rather than later when the value for Kuznetsov would likely be quite high?
Hopefully, McPhee will hold on to Kuznetsov, who would be an almost immediate impact player. He is top-six forward material already and would give the Caps some much-needed scoring depth.
On the other hand, if McPhee starts to get a feeling that Kuznetsov is not going to come to Washington, then I would not be surprised at all to see Kuznetsov dealt.
It is hard to talk about Evgeny Kuznetsov and not think about the other highly touted prospect the Caps had who they inexplicably traded away. Of course, I am talking about Filip Forsberg, who was traded to the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline for Martin Erat.
I have gone on record several times that this was a horrible trade, even though Forsberg has never played a minute in the NHL.
General manager George McPhee made the trade so the Caps could win now. The thought was that Erat would add what the Caps so desperately needed to win that elusive Stanley Cup.
To say things did not work out would be a gross understatement. In nine regular-season games with the Caps, Erat had all of one goal and two assists. In the playoffs against the New York Rangers, Erat did absolutely nothing except have a plus-one rating—and he missed the final three games of the series when the Caps could arguably have used him the most.
To recap, Erat was brought to D.C. to help the Caps win the Cup, did very little in 13 games played and was not even on the ice during Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal when he might have made a difference. Yes, injuries happen. Nevertheless, it is hard to consider the Forsberg for Erat trade to be anything but a really bad move by McPhee.
Erat does not become an unrestricted free agent until after the 2014-15 season, but I do not think McPhee will wait that long to try and erase this mistake. Of course, I could be very wrong and with a full season under head coach Adam Oates' system, Erat perhaps could really flourish—if he can stay healthy.
I just don't see it happening though. Erat is a really good player. He is relatively young at 31 years old and there is no doubt he has some skills that will be very appealing to many teams.
However, he has not had a 20-goal season since the 2009-10 campaign. Even when he was in Nashville prior to the trade, he was not the same Martin Erat who had scored 36 goals, had 72 assists and a combined plus-26 the past two seasons.
I would love to be wrong about this, but I expect this downward trend to continue and, if it does, do not be surprised if McPhee looks to deal Erat prior to the end of the 2013-14 season.
Is this the year the Caps finally deal Jeff Schultz?
Now here is a trade Caps fans have been asking for for a very long time.
I would be kind of surprised if it does not finally happen before the end of next season.
One has to ask exactly what Schultz brings to the Caps any longer or why there is any real reason to keep him on the team.
During the Caps' tremendous 2009-10 regular season, Schultz had a career year. He had three goals, 20 assists and an astonishing plus-50 rating.
Since then though, Schultz has just not done a whole lot of anything. Over the next three seasons, Schultz has two goals, 17 assists and a minus-two rating.
This past season, Schultz played in just 26 games and was a healthy scratch on most nights. He simply does not fit in with the Caps any longer and he really has no true role on the team. The Caps are a team that actually needs to make upgrades on defense and injecting Schultz into the lineup would appear to be going in the opposite direction.
At one time, Schultz was a solid defender. He is only 27 years old so perhaps there is something still there in the tank. My gut instinct, however, tells me that Schultz would do better with a change of scenery and the Caps would do better by trading him to a team that might have a use for him.
Schultz will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2013-14 season and he is a huge cap liability for the Caps, $2.75 million per year to be exact. If the Caps could somehow trade him—and preferably prior to the beginning of the 2013-14 season—Washington could free up some much-needed cap space.
Trading Schultz, particularly with his track record the past few seasons, will be difficult. Still, of all the players listed in this article, Schultz is the one I think who will most likely be traded first.
Jason Chimera will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2013-14 season. Unless he has a pretty remarkable turnaround season, he is a player I fully expect the Caps to trade before the end of next year.
Chimera is one of those players who has the capability to be a real spark plug for the Capitals.
When he is on his game, he is deceptively quick and is an underrated scoring threat.
The 2011-12 campaign was a breakout season of sorts for Chimera. He had a career-high 20 goals, double the total he had the previous season. It was the first time Chimera had ever had a 20-goal season.
To go with his 20 goals, Chimera added 19 assists.
During the 2011-12 playoffs, Chimera continued his stellar play with four goals and three assists. Suffice it to say, expectations for Chimera were quite high entering the 2012-13 season.
When I think about this season for Chimera though, the phrase "crashed and burned" comes to mind. Chimera had only three goals and 11 assists during the entire season, shortened though it might have been. He also had a minus-five rating as compared his plus-four from the previous season.
In the playoffs, Chimera had only one goal and that was in Game 1 against New York. Like Alexander Ovechkin, Chimera largely disappeared after that first game, even though he has feasted against the Rangers in prior playoff series.
Granted, some of Chimera's problems this past season were due to bad puck luck. The guy just was not very lucky and, like it or not, that counts for a lot in hockey.
Perhaps Chimera's luck will change during the 2013-14 season. I expect the Caps to let this situation play out a bit. If his numbers come back up, look for the Caps to try and ink him to an extension before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
If Chimera's numbers do not improve this season, then look for him to be a player that gets dealt before the 2013-14 trade deadline.
Dmitry Orlov is a player I can see the Caps trading prior to the end of the 2014 season.
I admit that this is one I am not so sure about. In reality, the Caps have three players who will be restricted free agents at the end of the 2013-14 season and all of them could possibly be trade bait.
Specifically, I am talking about Dmitry Orlov, Mathieu Perreault and Michael Latta.
I do not believe all three will remain on the Caps' roster by the end of the 2013-14 season. Determining which one will be dealt though is a difficult task.
I am leaning towards Orlov being the player that gets traded for a few reasons. First, I cannot really see the Caps trading Perreault. He was simply too good and showed too much potential this past season for the Caps to deal him. You are talking about a guy with six goals, 11 assists and a plus-seven rating.
Perreault's stats compared quite favorably to Marcus Johansson and I doubt the Caps will be trading MoJo anytime soon either.
As for Latta, not enough is known about him. Latta was acquired along with Martin Erat in the trade for Filip Forsberg. Latta is another player with lots of potential, but not a whole lot is known of him.
When the Forsberg-for-Erat-and-Latta trade went down, Russian Machine Never Breaks was quite high on Latta's potential and indicated he should not be overlooked as an important part of that deal. I expect that the Caps will bring Latta up at some point this season to see how he does.
Orlov, however, does not seem as though he is going to get much of an opportunity to play. This becomes quite confusing when you look at his stats during the time he has played in Washington.
During the 2011-12 season, Orlov played in 60 games for the Caps with three goals, 16 assists and a plus-one rating. Those were pretty good numbers—but not good enough to earn an opportunity to play in the playoffs against either the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers.
This past season, Orlov had some injury issues to deal with, but when he got the chance to play, he did the most with it. He only played in five games, but had a solid plus-five rating. Despite that, Orlov was sent back to Hershey as soon as John Erskine was healthy. Looking back on it now, I am not sure that was such a good idea.
Orlov is only 21 years old and at 6'0" and 210 pounds, he has the size and speed to be a really good NHL defenseman. So why did he only play in five games this year? Why didn't the Caps bring him back up for the series against the Rangers? Why not give the young man, who has shown some definite potential thus far, a chance to prove what he can do in the playoffs?
The possibility that there is something about him known to general manager George McPhee, but unknown to the rest of us, has to be considered. I think it is more likely than not that Orlov could be traded prior to the end of next season. Orlov has some trade value and the Caps might just get a decent return for him.
I think one of the three restricted free agents mentioned will likely be dealt prior to the end of the 2013-14 season. Based on what we know about Perreault, and what we do not know about Latta, Orlov would appear to be the more likely one to be traded.