Examine the Capitals roster and there aren’t many players who aren’t under contract for next season. As of this writing, Washington already has more than $58.4 million committed to 21 players for the 2014-15 season, including players such as rookie defensemen Connor Carrick and Patrick Wey, who both ended the year in the NHL.
Only three players who saw regular playing time with the Capitals this season are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Let’s take a look at each, the season that was and whether they might be back next season.
Note: For offseason purposes players’ salaries, not their salary-cap hits, are included. All salary figures are from Capgeek.com.
2013-14 salary: $3 million | Age: 30
2013-14 regular season stats: 58 GP, 13G, 22A, +6
Another year, another second line center for the Capitals but Grabovski brought the two-way presence in the role that Coach Adam Oates preferred and the single-season experiment appeared to work for both the team and the player. Grabovski had the best possession indicators at even strength of all forwards who played 50 or more games, and he received a fresh start with a coaching staff that utilized his creativity rather than attempted to smother it.
He missed 22 games with a sprained left ankle that he said Tuesday is close to being completely healed, adding that it didn’t bother him down the stretch in the regular season. But Grabovski is believed to be in search of a four- or five-year deal worth as much as $5 million annually, so the Capitals would need to determine if they see him as a long-term addition.
While that answer will wait on the fates of Oates and General Manager George McPhee, there’s one important element that will play a role regardless of how the management decisions shake out.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, the highly touted first rounder who finally arrived in the NHL this March, is a gifted playmaker and could have the makings of a top-six center but hasn’t played there often in his professional career. If the Capitals coach next season, whoever that will be, doesn’t see Kuznetsov in that second line pivot spot, then they will need someone like Grabovski to round out the lineup. If the coach does believe Kuznetsov is ready for that role, then that could help mitigate the departure of Grabovski.
2013-14 salary: $4.5 million | Age: Turns 29 on May 13
2013-14 regular season stats: 29-13-7, .921 save percentage, 2.25 GAA
2013-14 Caps stats: 5-4-3, .930 save percentage, 2.31 GAA
Washington aimed to upgrade its goaltending on March 5 when it traded for Halak, but it wasn’t a magic cure-all for a team on the fringe of the postseason hunt with defensive flaws. Halak posted respectable overall numbers in his six-week stay with the Capitals, but his five-on-five save percentage (.918) after the trade was lower than the marks of Braden Holtby (.930) and Philipp Grubauer (.926) this season.
The Capitals leaned on Halak heavily upon his arrival, starting him in 11 of 13 games beginning on March 8 but after an initial run of success he went winless in five straight, falling to Los Angeles twice, Nashville, Dallas and New Jersey.
Then there was the situation in St. Louis. On April 8 with the Capitals hoping to keep their playoff hopes alive against the Blues, Oates said Halak “wasn’t 100 percent comfortable” facing the team he spent 3 ½ years playing for. That created a firestorm of criticism around the goaltender, who never publicly denied the comments. His agent, however, said Halak was misrepresented by Oates, and there clearly was a communication problem.
While Halak played one more game after that incident, it doesn’t seem likely that he will return to Washington, especially considering he will be one of the top free agent goaltenders available this summer. Halak didn’t rule out the possibility, though.
“We have a really good group of guys over here, I came here to make the playoffs and obviously we didn’t make it,” Halak said. “I’ve got unfinished business here and I wouldn’t be against coming back so we’ll see what the future brings.”
2013-14 salary: $2 million | Age: 31
2013-14 regular season stats: 67GP, 14G, 21A, +22
2013-14 Caps stats: 18GP, 1G, 2A, +3
McPhee brought up the name of Mike Knuble after he acquired Penner, hinting that perhaps the burly winger could fill a similar role on the Capitals’ top line. Penner never played on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, though, and spent the bulk of his ice time as a Capital on the fourth unit having minimal impact.
While the trade was a low-risk move – Washington sent Anaheim the fourth-round pick it had acquired back in September when it sent Mathieu Perreault to the Ducks – it simply didn’t pay off. Penner didn’t appreciate being moved from a team that finished as Western Conference champions to one that failed to make the playoffs and was hardly noticeable on the ice.
“I was here for a short time, but it doesn’t ease the pain of not making the playoffs any less,” Penner said. “I’ve been in the fight for the Stanley Cup the last few years. I’ve gotten used to it. It’s not a welcome feeling.”
Probably safe to say he won’t be back next year.