When the Washington Capitals' prospects hit the ice for their first practice of development camp on Tuesday, they might see a "Help Wanted" sign hanging at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
That's essentially the state of general manager Brian MacLellan's quest to fill the gaping hole on defense after losing Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. The Capitals had projected the smooth-skating Schmidt, 25, to move into their top four with Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson before Vegas claimed him on Wednesday.
With Schmidt gone and potential unrestricted free agent defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk unlikely to be re-signed because of NHL salary-cap concerns, MacLellan is ready to explore all options.
"We have a job opening," MacLellan said. "We don't have a plan. We're going to look at young guys, look at free agents, maybe the trade market. We'll pursue all avenues and see what we can come up with."
If MacLellan is going to bring in a top-four defenseman from outside the organization, he might have to get creative. After re-signing right wing T.J. Oshie to an eight-year, $46 million contract on Friday, the Capitals have $19,061,538 in salary-cap space remaining, according to CapFriendly.com, with potential restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer and Orlov due significant raises and Brett Connolly, another potential RFA, also needing to be re-signed.
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While there was a lot of trade talk and a few big moves involving other teams at the 2017 NHL Draft presented by adidas in Chicago on Friday and Saturday, the Capitals were mostly quiet on that front. They didn't have a pick in the first three rounds after trading them away in go-for-it deals for Shattenkirk, forward Lars Eller and defenseman Mike Weber during the past two seasons.
Although they selected three defensemen --Tobias Geisser (Zug Academy, Switzerland), Sebastian Walfridsson (Modo Jr., Sweden) and Benton Maass (Elk River High School, Minnesota) -- with their four picks in Chicago, those players are years away from being able to help. Defenseman Lucas Johansen, the Capitals' 2016 first-round pick (No. 28) and the younger brother of Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen, will be at development camp and has the potential to play in the top four someday, but the 19-year-old isn't likely to take that step this season.
Internally, the Capitals' options on defense include veterans Brooks Orpik, who will turn 37 on Sept. 26, and Taylor Chorney, 30, as well as 22-year-old rookies Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos and Tyler Lewington.
Bowey, a second-round pick (No. 53) in 2013, probably would have gotten some NHL experience last season if he hadn't been sidelined with an ankle tendon laceration. Djoos, the son of former NHL defenseman Per Djoos, was re-signed for two seasons on Thursday after finishing with 58 points (13 goals, 45 assists) in 66 games with Hershey in the American Hockey League last season.
"We've got some good young D coming," MacLellan said. "I don't know if they're ready. We'll have to see. Their performance in training camp will dictate where they play in the lineup."
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Orpik played in the top four for two seasons before being shifted by coach Barry Trotz into a reduced role last season. Trotz sounded as if he wanted to explore other options before considering moving Orpik back to the top four.
"I know [MacLellan] will exhaust all avenues to try to fill that need on defense now," Trotz said. "We'll be looking at some of our young guys to step up and play. I think some of the guys have done a really good job in Hershey, matured very well, and, hopefully, we can give them some competition. The last couple of years we haven't had that many holes, so this will be the first time that we have a few more holes."
The interview period for unrestricted free agents opened Sunday, but MacLellan's priority is to try to get his own restricted free agents re-signed. Until those contracts are done or MacLellan at least has a good idea of the potential salary cap charges, he won't know how much space he'll have to add any unrestricted free agents when they are free to sign with other teams on July 1.
"We'll evaluate the UFA market and maybe if one defenseman that we like at the right price range will fit we might pursue it," MacLellan said. "If not, we'll give opportunities to the young guys."