Monday afternoon, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan offered hints of the team’s offseason plans; suggesting Jay Beagle is a top unrestricted priority by lumping him among the pending restricted free agents; expressing the desire to give youngsters Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson more minutes; hoping aloud that the pending free agents might forgo larger contracts elsewhere to, in effect, keep the band together another year.
“I think it’s important for players that they realize we’ve had a successful team and if they believe we have a good chance moving forward to win a championship,” MacLellan said, “they recognize that going for max dollars, which you could make the choice to do in certain situations, that it would hinder our ability to compete going forward.”
The Capitals return 14 players on their active roster with a combined cap hit of just under $50 million. Because MacLellan said the NHL estimated its salary ceiling will fall between $70 and $71 million, this leaves roughly $20 million to spend on eight more players, assuming they’ll carry 22 like they did this season.
Some of that cash will be used to re-sign the four restricted free agents – Braden Holtby, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nate Schmidt – all of whom MacLellan expected back. But this leaves question marks elsewhere. If the Capitals indeed bring back Beagle, whom MacLellan hoped would be “an easier one to sign,” then the list of available roster spots shrinks even further.
“I think it’ll sort itself out,” MacLellan said. “I think we have some RFAs that we really like and we want to bring them back. We’ll work through it. I think we can get reasonable contracts on all of them, and then we’ll make decisions based on where the cap ends up and what amount of money we have left over after that, and how we want to invest it.”
This wait-and-see-approach with the unrestricted free agents will leave the Capitals with decisions to make concerning Eric Fehr, Joel Ward and Mike Green. As the highest-paid pending unrestricted free agent in this year’s market, Green figures to command somewhere close to the roughly $6 million he made this season, given his puck-moving skill-set and right-handed shot.
MacLellan expressed hope Green could return for an 11th season in Washington, but admitted that it wouldn’t be any higher in the lineup than the No. 5 spot where Green spent this year. And MacLellan said both Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov were expected to be in the lineup next season.
“It’s probably going to be a little complicated,” MacLellan said. “There’s a lot of moving parts around that. The best thing I think we can do is keep in communication, tell him what we’re thinking, and he can tell us what he’s thinking, and if it works out, that’d be great, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
The same could have been said about Ward, who will turn 35 in December of next season. For the second time in his career, a starring postseason role will net the right-winger a decent-sized contract; his four-year, $12-million deal in Washington followed a 12-game, 13-point performance with Nashville. Expecting Ward to ask for $3.5 to $4 million annually is not unreasonable. Whether his requested length aligns with the Capitals’ vision remains the bigger question.
“I think term’s going to be an issue there going forward,” MacLellan said. “If we can work in a good number and we feel Joel can continue to play at the level he’s playing at, we’ll work it out.”
MacLellan offered his fewest contractual thoughts on Fehr, mostly breaking down the forward’s game – much improved in faceoffs, strong in the defensive zone, contributed 31 points at even strength – and tacking on the hope for a new contract only at the end. Late-season injury issues might cut into Fehr’s search for a significant raise from his current $1.5 million cap hit, but at his best he proved himself more than capable of anchoring the checking line during a playoff push.
“We’d love to have him back,” MacLellan said.
Ultimately, this was the sweeping message about the four unrestricted free agents and the four restricted free agents. The Capitals exited the postseason optimistic about their future, praising the chemistry of their current crop and hoping it would mostly remain intact. Based on MacLellan’s comments, it won’t be entirely up to them.
“A lot of positives with these guys, I think they want to come back,” he said. “So we’re going to work to get them back.”