© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
There’s a reason the Washington Capitals went all in at the trade deadline earlier this month. With the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk, likely this year’s biggest rental prize available, the Caps immediately became Stanley Cup favourites — if they weren’t already.
Why the urgency? This summer, their window to win with the current group they’ve assembled is going to close. They won’t suddenly be a non-contender, or anything, but the Caps have a handful of key players on expiring contracts, and many of them simply aren’t going to be able to stick around thanks to the salary cap.
T.J. Oshie is front and centre in that discussion. On one hand, he’s probably the best winger the Caps have found to play opposite Alexander Ovechkin since the Great Eight entered the league in 2005. On the other, he just turned 30 years old and cap room is tight.
Who is he?
The Capitals acquired Oshie, the right-handed winger, back in summer 2015 from the St. Louis Blues in a puzzling, lopsided deal. It was pretty clear that the Blues — who had a situation much like Washington’s right now, with veterans on expiring deals, Vladimir Tarasenko in need of a new long-term contract, and a tight cap picture — didn’t have Oshie in their plans for the future. But rather than dealing him for some packing of prospects and draft picks, they moved him to Washington for Troy Brouwer, Pheonix Copley, and a third rounder.
Oshie has since played some of the best hockey of his career, as you’d expect, transforming the once incomplete duo of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom into one of the NHL’s best scoring lines. In 2015-16, he scored a career-high 26 goals, and this season, through just 55 games, he’s already matched that total, and will shatter his own personal record.
Over the past two seasons, only three skaters (with 500 or more minutes played) have a better even strength Goals For percentage than Oshie, as he can drive offence while also not being completely hopeless in his own end. His possession numbers aren’t spectacular, much like Ovechkin and Backstrom, because the line plays a style that involves working hard for high danger chances rather than taking shots at a high volume whenever possible.
Beyond the numbers, Oshie is an endearing and exciting player. He isn’t a fantastic skater, but works hard, plays a physical game, will challenge defencemen one-on-one, and has the skill and shooting ability to score highlight reel goals. He’s also really, really good in the shootout.
Add all of that together and you have one of, if not the most coveted free agent forward hitting the open market this summer.
How much will he cost?
Last summer, the going rate for a top-tier free agent forward was somewhere between $5 and $6 million annually over six or seven years, depending on who it was.
Milan Lucic, David Backes, Loui Eriksson, and Kyle Okposo each got $6 million from the Oilers, Bruins, Canucks, and Sabres respectively, while Andrew Ladd got $5.5 million from the Islanders, and Frans Nielsen got $5.25 million from the Red Wings.
And that was a market that featured a pretty hefty handful of solid free agent forwards. This year? It’s barren wasteland. After Oshie, there really isn’t much to get excited about. So if anybody wants to make a major addition to their top-six forwards, that’s who they’re going to be calling. Also, the salary cap could rise by a few million dollars, giving teams all more more incentive to go out and spend money on a major addition.
With that in mind, Oshie’s contract on the open market will easily be worth $6 million annually over six seasons, and that’s a conservative estimate.
Can Washington afford it?
The key to being a successful team in the cap age is finding T.J. Oshie when he costs $4.175 million annually and another team needs to get rid of him to fit younger, more important players on expiring deals into their cap spreadsheet. If you pay a premium for them in free agency, you become the Detroit Red Wings — the ones of right now, not the ones of the past 25 years — old, expensive, and bad.
I mean, sure, if they can get Oshie to sign for a discount rate to stick around and put up video game numbers alongside a future Hall of Famer, they should absolutely pull the trigger. But six or seven years at $6 or $6.5 million for a guy who turns 31 in December, and plays a game that wears on him physically? That isn’t a good idea. MoneyPuck, who used to write for Canucks Army and now works with the Florida Panthers, did research on the aging curve of forwards, and determined that there’s a pretty steep drop-off in production once players get into their 30s.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, and losing Oshie would certainly sting, but it won’t sting as much as having a boat anchor contract two or three years down the road. Besides, the Caps already have $51 million invested in seven forwards, four defencemen, and one goalie next season. That’s only half of a hockey team, and a lot more than half of their cap room. Also, it doesn’t count Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andrei Burakovsky, or Dmitry Orlov, all of whom are restricted free agents this summer.
If the Caps are going to spend high and keep one of their soon-to-be unrestricted free agents around, I would bet that it’s going to be Kevin Shattenkirk rather than Oshie. But we don’t have to get into that right now.
If he hits the open market…
I touched on this earlier, but if (when) Oshie hits the open market this summer, he’ll be the most coveted forward out there. That, coupled with the fact there’s likely to be slightly more cap room available than teams expected, should push Oshie’s price higher than originally expected.
It’s difficult to predict exactly where he’ll go — and hell, that location could end up being Washington, who knows! — but it’s easy to put together a list of teams who would be interested and could afford his high price tag.
New Jersey is completely terrible, can’t score, doesn’t have many prospects to speak of, and only have Taylor Hall signed for three (!!!) more seasons. Carolina has all the good, young defencemen on the planet, but don’t have a hell of a lot up front beyond Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal and could use a boost. Toronto is a young team with a whole bunch of cap room that could be looking for a veteran offence producer to offset the loss of, say, James van Riemsdyk in a trade. Then, of course, there’s Vegas, who’s going to have a lot of money to play with, not a hell of a lot on their post-Expansion Draft roster, and a fresh fanbase to impress.
T.J. Oshie is going to be this summer’s best free agent forward on the market. This is unfortunate for the Capitals, of course, because he’s been absolutely perfect alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
As of right now, it appears the Caps are going to have to waive goodbye to Oshie this summer because of their salary cap picture and need to sign other, younger restricted free agents. But if Oshie were to take a discount to continue playing for the league’s best team, something could get done.
Based off what last summer’s top forwards were signed to, Oshie’s next deal will be a pretty hefty increase from his current $4.125 million annual salary. But whoever signs him is going to have to accept he probably isn’t going to be productive for two or three years of that deal.