Three long-term injuries set to lead the way for Caps’ summer originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The Capitals are entering their busiest stretch of the offseason, perhaps their most important in a few years, for a summer that will shape the franchise for at least one year and likely longer.
They’ll have to navigate the next two weeks with the right mix of cautiousness and aggressiveness, because if the Capitals want to contend for the postseason in the 2022-23 season, they’ll have to work through serious injuries on the roster that are set to leak into the regular season.
And the time for knowing, or at least having ideas of what’s coming in the next handful of months with those injuries, is nearing with the NHL Draft this week and free agency to follow.
First, there’s Tom Wilson, who has a $5.166 million cap hit and a torn left ACL from an injury in Game 1 of the postseason. He is expected back to the lineup at some point between late November and January after he underwent surgery earlier this summer.
But while Wilson’s injury will put a team leader in the press box and take a physical force away from the team, there’s at least some semblance of certainty as it relates to a return to game action.
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The other two injuries are far more serious, far more uncertain and far more difficult to project returns for.
There’s Carl Hagelin, who has a $2.75 million cap hit with a year left on his deal. He’s still attempting to return from a ruptured choroid in his left eye, an injury that nearly cost him his eyesight in that eye. Naturally, his future remains unknown considering the severity of his injury.
He mentioned at the team’s breakdown day in May that his eye will never be 100% again, but he’s doing everything he can to try and get back into playing condition.
“I'm doing everything I can to be back next year,” Hagelin said in May. “Still, I had two procedures so far and the second one was almost a month ago (from May 16). So it's still in that time zone of healing and kind of not sure where it's going to end up, but I'm staying positive and I'm optimistic that I'm going to come back next year. It'll be a grind, of course. I'll do everything I can this summer to be ready for camp."
Finally, there’s Nicklas Backstrom, the most difficult of any of the Capitals' problems to both understand and to solve.
Backstrom recently underwent hip resurfacing surgery, a complicated procedure that is not an easy operation to recover from at a professional level. He will be 35 years old in November, and he carries a $9.2 million cap hit for the next three seasons.
If the Capitals know that both Hagelin and Backstrom will not be available for regular-season action — thereby allowing those players to be put on long-term injured reserve — that would clear $11.95 million from the salary cap and free up the Capitals to sign, frankly, any free agent they wish to in the coming weeks. In terms of signing a major free agent like Filip Forsberg, Nazem Kadri or John Klingberg, putting both of those injured Capitals on LTIR would pave the way.
At the very least, it would give them the flexibility needed to add to all areas of the roster without too much worry of exceeding the $82.5 million cap ceiling.
Per CapFriendly, the Capitals would have $20,153,334 million in cap space with Wilson on injured reserve (where his cap hit counts) and Backstrom and Hagelin on long-term injured reserve (where their cap hits, in terms of salary cap purposes, would essentially go away).
The Capitals have to budget for Wilson's $5.166 million to count against the salary cap, even this summer, because he's expected to return to the lineup at some point during the season and there will need to be space for his return. In that way, they're operating at a disadvantage this offseason.
Backstrom and Hagelin's cap hits, conversely, (specifically Backstrom's) would make for a nice chunk of change for the team to work with if both are unable to play in the regular season.
If the Capitals slide Backstrom over to injured reserve (and keep Hagelin on LTIR) due to a potential return during the regular season, they’d have $10,953,334 in cap space, also per CapFriendly. If those two are swapped for the same reason, they’d have $17,403,334 in space.
If they slide both to injured reserve, that cap number drops to $8,203,334 — with a 13th forward, sixth and seventh defensemen and two goalies still necessary for the opening night roster.
General manager Brian MacLellan has to navigate all of this and answer a bevy of questions as it relates to each scenario.
Should the Capitals pull the trigger on an assuredly expensive top-six center to replace Backstrom, whose short and long-term health remains uncertain? Can Hagelin get medically cleared, and even if so, would the team opt to play younger Axel Jonsson-Fjallby instead? Can the Capitals exist for a handful of months without Tom Wilson, or does his long-term absence necessitate the addition of a top-six winger?
Paired with general questions about players taking steps forward and back, along with worries about getting younger and uncertainty in net, the Capitals figure to be one of the league's most interesting teams over the next few weeks. And for MacLellan, this offseason figures to be one of the toughest tests of his tenure thus far.
The question above all else, though, is if Backstrom, Hagelin and Wilson will be ready to be contributors next season and if the Capitals must budget for them on the salary cap. The latter seems like a lock once he’s physically cleared to return. The former two remain uncertain, and entering the offseason, that’s the Capitals’ biggest question that they’ll have to answer.