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Caps hope to sign Marcus Johansson before training camp opens

(Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

With only a week left before veterans report for training camp, it’s unclear whether Marcus Johansson will have a new contract with the Capitals in place before preparations for the 2013-14 season begin in earnest.

“We’re hoping he’ll be here,” General Manager George McPhee said Wednesday, remaining characteristically tight-lipped. “We’re hoping we’ll have a deal done by then, we’ll keep talking.”

Johansson, 22, increased his points-per-game average throughout his first three NHL seasons and found a place on the top line last year as a complement to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. But not even encouraging point production in the early stages of his career offers the Swedish forward much leverage in contract negotiations given that he is a restricted free agent without arbitration rights.

Johansson, who earned $900,000 per season on his entry-level deal, is believed to be seeking a contract upwards of Carl Hagelin’s two-year, $4.5 million ($2.25 million AAV) deal with the Rangers. Johansson’s agent, Marc Levine, has repeatedly declined to comment on the negotiations.

While Johansson has out-produced Hagelin and held a more prominent role with the Capitals than his counterpart has with New York, both are still somewhat unproven commodities with significant potential. And the longer the summer progressed without a deal, the more the situation appears to have tilted in Washington’s favor.

At this stage, the Capitals have a little over $2.6 million remaining in space under the salary cap. Regardless how the opening lineup shakes out, there is significantly less flexibility for salary negotiation than there was earlier in the offseason, barring a roster move of some sort.

Washington also has 12 forwards signed to one-way, NHL contracts. (Without counting prospect Tom Wilson, who is expected to contend for a spot on the NHL roster.) With that many forwards clearly in the mix, the Capitals could endure a holdout should it come to that.

McPhee dismissed both the diminished salary cap space and abundance of forwards as significant advantages for the team in getting the forward signed, though, stating that the priority is simply to have a new deal in place prior to the start of camp.

“We try to negotiate on what the player is now and what he’s going to be and attach a number to it and that’s what we try to get to,” McPhee said. “It’s not about using the cap in one way or another to get to a deal. It’s, ‘What is this guy worth? What is he right now? And what can we expect him to be?’ And [then] attach a value based on what other people are getting around the league.”

It should be interesting to see how this ultimately plays out and what Johansson ultimately receives in his new contract. But at this point Johansson could opt for a short-term bridge contract that would get him on the ice with the Capitals sooner rather than later and provide both opportunity and incentive to earn a more lucrative deal in the future.