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Capitals timeline on pending unrestricted free agents on hold, GM says

Playing out 'different scenarios' with uncertainty surrounding status of season, salary cap

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

The Washington Capitals timeline on deciding whether to re-sign goalie Braden Holtby has been put on hold along with everything else since the NHL paused the 2019-20 regular season on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

Washington's determination on Holtby, who can become an unrestricted free agent after this season, is the biggest they'll have to make this offseason, and it will be impacted on multiple levels by when, and if, the NHL resumes play.

The Capitals were likely to be tight against the NHL salary cap heading into next season before play was paused. Not knowing if the salary cap will decrease -- and how much -- from $81.5 million this season makes it hard for them to figure out what they'll do with any of their potential free agents.

"It is difficult," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said during a conference call with the media on Monday. "I guess we talk over all the possible scenarios and you try to prepare mentally for anything. What happens to the cap? Does the cap go down because revenues are going to decrease? Do they artificially keep it where it's at? So the answer to those questions puts us on pause on your UFA negotiations."

Video: WSH@ARI: Holtby extends and makes a great skate save

Although Holtby is having a down season statistically with a 25-14-6 record, a 3.11 goals-against average and .897 save percentage, the 30-year-old would potentially be the most sought-after free agent goalie on the market. Holtby's impressive resume includes winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie in 2016, and helping the Capitals win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history in 2018.

Washington's other potential unrestricted free agents include forward Ilya Kovalchuk, and defensemen Brenden Dillon and Radko Gudas. Normally, contract years end on June 30, but MacLellan said that deadline is expected to be pushed back if the NHL opts to play games in July and August to finish the season and fit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.   

"Everybody plays out the different scenarios," MacLellan said. "If we did (play) through August, could we have a couple of months off and then start back up in November? What do they do with that cap number? I think there are so many questions that we haven't even considered that'll pop up given whatever the result is at the end of this. … All we can do is try and prepare for different scenarios that we see coming and do the best we can do."

In the meantime, the Capitals amateur scouting department has been trying to prepare for the 2020 NHL Draft, which was postponed from its original date of June 26-27 in Montreal, without the benefit of the 2020 NHL Scouting Combine, which was scheduled for June 1-6 in Buffalo before it was postponed, or the ability to conduct in-person interviews with prospects.

Video: WSH@NYR: Kovalchuk wires home blistering slap shot

"We talk on how we're going to have meetings, the possibility of meetings to put the (draft) list together," MacLellan said. "How do we keep our guys engaged? With the combine being canceled, can we do some phone interviews? What can we do on the video side of it?"

Ultimately, if this season resumes, teams will have to gear up quickly to get ready for the playoffs. MacLellan said 14 Capitals players stayed in the Washington area during the pause while nine went back to their offseason homes, and that none of them have exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus or have been tested for it.

Capitals strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish has stayed in contact with the players regularly to try to help them stay in shape in case the season resumes. There is expected to be a brief training camp, but everything else remains unknown about how the season would be restarted.

"We're trying to be prepared for anything that might come down the hopper if we get a chance to continue to play," MacLellan said. "Whether it's in June, July or August, we try to be as best prepared as we can for that. Other than that, we have conference calls with the League, the Board of Governors has conference calls with the League, I talk to (team president) Dick Patrick regularly. 

"I think we're trying to be prepared as much as possible for any scenario that might come down the line for us going forward."

Although the Capitals (41-20-8) are in first place in the Metropolitan Division, they are 15-14-3 since Dec. 23 and were struggling to find their consistency before the season was paused. Those on-ice issues have been pushed to the backburner with the focus shifting toward staying healthy, but they will have to be corrected if the season resumes.

"I don't think we've been happy with the way they've played since probably the end of December," MacLellan said. "In my mind, there was a slight uptick near the end the last few games. But overall, I think there was a sense of frustration and a sense of we should be playing a lot better than we were the past period of time. … When we come back, I think we have issues that need to be addressed and were being addressed at the end."

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