Several talent-laden NHL clubs, including the Washington Capitals, went into this week's NHL expansion draft with worries of losing a pretty good hockey player, one they'd prefer not to lose. While some teams lost significant players from their rosters, other clubs were able to come to terms with Vegas general manager George McPhee on trades to protect highly valued assets and to mitigate the damage that might have been done to their respective rosters. Some of those moves involved giving up high-end prospects or first-round draft picks in order to shift Vegas away from drafting certain players.
Despite trying to turn McPhee's attention elsewhere with a similar swap offer, Caps GM Brian MacLellan was unable to sway his former boss. Washington will lose defenseman Nate Schmidt to Vegas in the expansion draft, leaving the Caps with a hole in the top four of their blueline depth chart.
Vegas drafted far more defensemen than the nine mandated by the rules - taking the maximum of 13 blueliners - simply because it can do so and because there is always a trade market for viable NHL blueliners. The Golden Knights also added defenseman Shea Theodore in a trade with Anaheim, giving them 14 defensemen as it stands now. Expect McPhee to deal several of those defensemen to other NHL clubs who are in need, and Schmidt could fall into that category. It's possible he never dons a Vegas sweater.
No matter how the draft shook out, Washington expected to lose a good and valued player in any event. Veteran center Jay Beagle and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer were also exposed and both would have been solid additions to the nascent Golden Knights franchise. Losing either of those two players would have been difficult and would have required Washington to react to fill the resulting hole, but the loss of Schmidt presents a more difficult scenario for the Capitals in terms of cost to replace the lost asset.
Although his average ice time total of 15:42 per night ranked seventh among the team's defensemen last season, Schmidt was easily the most fleet-footed of the Washington rearguard corps, and the Caps will miss his wheels in a league that is becoming more and more speed-based by the day.
The trade deadline addition of Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington roster resulted in a loss of playing time for Schmidt, but he returned to the lineup late in the season and in the postseason, and he played extremely well when he did. A third-pair defensemen throughout his four seasons in Washington, the Caps penciled Schmidt in for a second pairing slot alongside John Carlson for the upcoming season.
Schmidt will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights on July 1, but the Caps were still expecting to be able to get him under contract at a more than reasonable rate for a top four defenseman.
After earning $812,500 for each of the last two seasons in Washington, Schmidt is in a position to more than double that figure for the upcoming campaign. But even in the range of a $2 million annual salary, Schmidt could provide excellent value for his employer in the seasons ahead, if he is able to make the jump to a top four role as Washington was projecting.
Already faced with a number of imminent negotiations with other impending RFAs such as Grubauer, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov, Washington must now find a way to replace Schmidt as well as impending unrestricted free agent Karl Alzner. Alzner, a fixture on the Washington blueline for the better part of the last decade, is unlikely to return to the District because the Capitals will be hard pressed to afford his price tag going forward.
The Caps had taken great care to stagger the expiration of their blueliners' contracts so they'd be unlikely to lose more than one in any given summer going forward, so Vegas' choice of Schmidt also puts a crimp in that stratagem.
Replacing both Alzner and Schmidt via the trade route will likely be too costly, both in terms of the assets needed to make the deals go down and in terms of the expected salaries of potential top four defensemen coming in trade. The free agent route isn't likely to offer any bargains, either. With the salary cap nudging up to $75 million next season from $73 million in 2016-17, the Caps aren't likely to have much cap space remaining once they sign their impending RFAs, making a foray into the free agent market even less likely.
What Washington does have going for it is a handful of young - albeit unproven at the NHL level - defensemen who are itching for a shot at the big time. Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos and Tyler Lewington are all headed into their third pro seasons in 2017-18, and none has made his NHL debut yet. The Caps also have 2015 second-rounder Jonas Siegenthaler and 2016 first-rounder Lucas Johansen, though both of those blueliners are almost certainly ticketed for AHL Hershey in '17-18.
Statement from Brian MacLellan on Nate Schmidt
Washington Capitals Senior Vice President and General Manager Brian MacLellan issued the following statement today on Nate Schmidt, who was selected by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft.
"We want to thank Nate for his contributions to our organization the past four seasons and wish him all the best in Vegas. We feel we have a young group of up-and-coming defensemen who will now have an opportunity in Washington and are ready to make the jump with our club."