AMONG the best pieces of advice anyone will ever get is never to walk away from happiness. (Or, in the case of the Washington Capitals, don’t skate away from it.)
After ending their 44-year wait for an NHL title, the Capitals are undoubtedly blissful. Tuesday’s parade capped a cathartic week of fun with the Stanley Cup. Social media overflowed with videos of Alex Ovechkin and company drinking from the Cup, sleeping and barbecuing with it, getting tattoos and even swimming in local fountains.
All that fun was well-deserved and hard-earned.
But before the final piece of confetti is picked up along Constitution Avenue, the work resumes for general manager Brian MacLellan, who will learn (if he didn’t already now) that success brings new and different hard choices.
It starts with head coach Barry Trotz, whose contract expired at the end of the season. The Capitals essentially made the 2018 playoffs a tryout for Trotz, whose teams in Nashville and D.C. had never made it past the conference finals in his 19-year NHL coaching career.
Trotz and his squad, aced the test. Now he stands to cash in--and it doesn’t have to be in Washington. He reportedly earned about $1.5 million this past season and is in for a big raise from someone.
MacLellan has said he wants to keep Trotz, and it makes sense to stay with a championship team that’s poised for future success.
But it’s not that easy.
The New York Islanders have a coaching vacancy and would be foolish not to make an overture toward Trotz. There’s also the videotape taken after the Capitals’ first-round series victory, in which amateur lip-readers swear they saw Trotz tell Columbus coach John Tortorella: “I’m gone. I’m gone. I’m not coming back. I’m gone.”
Trotz has denied those rumors, but until he signs a new contract, all bets are off. He might want to go out on top, or take a year off to be with his special-needs son and recharge his batteries.
The Capitals reportedly have denied opposing teams permission to interview assistant coach Todd Reirden for head-coaching jobs elsewhere; perhaps MacLellan knew something we didn’t and has a succession plan. Reirden is well-respected, but any transition comes with hurdles.
No matter who coaches the Capitals in 2018-19, he won’t have the same roster that posed with the Cup in Vegas last week.
Yes, Ovechkin will be back, along with Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and rising star Evgeny Kuznetsov. They’ll ensure the Capitals remain Cup contenders.
But keeping two other key cogs in the run to the Cup will be problematic.
John Carlson has been a Capital since 2009, longer than anyone except Ovechkin, Backstrom and Jay Beagle. He’s been Washington’s top defenseman for several seasons and anchored both the team’s penalty kill and power play.
Carlson’s contract is also up, and at age 28, he’s still in the prime of his career. USA Today rated him the top unrestricted free agent on the market, ahead of the Islanders’ 37-goal-scoring center, John Tavares. Carlson surely will seek a bump from $4 million he earned this season, and the Capitals don’t have much (if any) projected salary-cap space.
As much as the team wants to keep him--and as much as he might like to stay--Carlson is likely to get greater financial offers elsewhere. Losing him would be a huge hit to a team whose renewed devotion to defense helped it win the Cup.
If Carlson’s chances to return are shaky, Devante Smith-Pelly’s odds are infinitesimal. After signing a one-year contract for $650,000 (just over the league minimum), Smith-Pelly matched his regular-season total with seven playoff goals. Most were pivotal, including the game-tying score in the third period of Game 5 of the final series.
His postseason heroics effectively played him off the 2018-19 Capitals roster, because some other team is going to offer him far more than Washington can. And after bouncing around the league (four teams in six seasons), he’d be foolish to turn it down, even though he raved about his time in D.C.
Those are decisions that were pushed aside on Tuesday, as the Capitals and tens of thousands of their long-suffering fans celebrated. But as with any party, there will be a hangover.