Capitals could use youth injection, but draft presents challenges

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In an ideal world, the Washington Capitals would use the eighth pick in this year’s NHL draft on a player that could contribute right away. With an aging core that failed to make the playoffs this past season, the Capitals could use an injection of youth. And what better way to do that than hit on a stud rookie to slot in with Alex Ovechkin? 

But that’s not how the NHL typically works. 

Centers Connor Bedar and Adam Fantalli — projected to go No. 1 and No. 2 — may be the only prospects in this year’s class who are likely to make an immediate impact next season. Instead, when the league’s two-day draft begins Wednesday, teams will pick player after player with the expectation that they won’t be able to contribute at the NHL level until years down the line.

That puts the Capitals in a tough spot.

“When you’re trying to get younger, we’ll have a good pick this year, but that’s probably a couple years away before we get that player,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. 

The Capitals will still likely end up holding onto the eighth pick rather than trading it for a veteran. After all, Washington hasn’t had an opportunity to take a pick this high since 2007, when the club selected defenseman Karl Alzner at No. 5. But the draft will still present a chance for Washington to rework its roster as MacLellan and Co. search for upgrades.

Already this week, NHL teams have been busy making moves in the lead-up to the draft and free agency. The Chicago Blackhawks, who hold the first overall pick, acquired forward Taylor Hall and defenseman Nick Foligno from the Boston Bruins. The Philadelphia Flyers, meanwhile, sent center Kevin Hayes to the St. Louis Blues for a sixth-round selection, while the Colorado Avalanche shipped center Alex Newhook to the Montreal Canadiens for the 31st and 37th selections.

The Capitals, so far, haven’t pulled the trigger on a trade. But the flurry of activity may be a promising sign that there’s a deal to be made — if Washington is open. This offseason, Washington’s Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Anthony Mantha have all been linked to trade rumors, and MacLellan told reporters he would consider making changes to Washington’s core. 

Moving on from Wilson or Kuznetsov would represent a significant shake-up. MacLellan, though, said he wanted to see Wilson — a free agent after next season — spend the rest of his career with the Capitals, and the winger was still productive upon his return from an ACL tear (13 goals in 33 games). Kuznetsov, by contrast, has been much more inconsistent: the Russian scored only 12 goals in 2022-23 — half of what he produced the year prior. 

“For whatever reason, he never quite found his game,” said MacLellan, who said he was “disappointed” in Kuznetsov’s year. 

“There is a lot of time to think about and refocus,” Kuznetsov said. “ But I’m pretty sure I’m going to find a solution.”

Complicating matters, the NHL salary cap is projected to rise by only $1 million to $83.5 million next season — which has caused teams to try and shed contracts to free up cap room. 

According to Cap Friendly, a website that tracks NHL salaries, the Capitals have  $7 million in cap space — the 10th-least amount of space across the league. To add players, Washington will either have to search for cheap upgrades or join teams like Boston in trying to dump salaries to clear space. 

As for the draft, the Capitals will have plenty of options at No. 8. Over the past few months, Washington has reportedly been strongly linked to Matvei Michkov — an electric 18-year-old, 170-pound Russian winger. The Capitals, of course, have a long history of drafting Russians and Michkov has a dynamic offensive skill set that’s likely to attract them.

But if drafted, Michkov would still be under contract with SKA St. Petersburg — and his deal with the Russian club doesn’t expire until after the 2025-26 season. That wait, however, for a top-tier prospect is just par for the course. 

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