Less than two weeks separate the Washington Capitals from the dawn of free agency. A year ago, that made for an eventful afternoon during general manager Brian MacLellan’s first turn atop the front office. On July 1, 2014, he quickly shelled out $67.75 million to two former Pittsburgh defensemen, shoring up the blue line in one lucrative swoop by inking Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. His second go-around, however — at least on the exact day unrestricted free agents can sign with other clubs – is expected to be far less eventful.
With defenseman Nate Schmidt reaching a one-way, two-year agreement Thursday afternoon, five of the organization’s 28 pending restricted or unrestricted free agents have signed new deals. Three – Schmidt, Garrett Mitchell and Philipp Grubauer – will remain with the Capitals, while AHL forwards Casey Wellman and Tim Kennedy are both headed overseas. Accordingly, MacLellan’s attention over the next 13 days will mainly focus on re-signing those in-house options to new contracts and exploring trade options for a top-six forward, intentions he made known during his final interview of the 2014-15 season.
“I think we have some RFAs that we really like and we want to bring them back,” MacLellan said last month. “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.”
With that in mind, here are some notes on the Capitals’ current situation:
Term limits in Washington
The mutual interest between Washington and forward Joel Ward has been well-documented, ranging from MacLellan’s comments on breakdown day to Ward’s agent calling re-signing “his first choice over going to unrestricted free agency.” However, given the gap between Ward’s desire for a long-term deal and the Capitals’ desire to keep him tethered with a shorter-term contract, it looks increasingly likely Ward will reach unrestricted free agency on July 1.
MacLellan already predicted that “term’s going to be an issue” in discussions with Ward. At 34 years old, the winger is hunting for what will likely be the final three- or four-year deal of his career. The Capitals, meanwhile, would prefer to keep him around for one or two years, without committing beyond that. Regardless, Ward’s agent, Peter Cooney, did not rule out reaching July 1 only to find a deal with Washington anyway.
“If we did go to July 1, it means nothing,” he said recently. “Washington is still a player. That does not shut the door on Washington.”
Green a goner?
Schmidt’s deal, annually worth $812,500 against Washington’s cap, increases the likelihood that defenseman Mike Green will sign elsewhere on July 1. Even while expressing hope Green and the Capitals could come to a mutually beneficial deal, MacLellan also predicted Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov would be “integrated into our lineup.” With so many other free agents to re-sign, and the blue line currently sporting six members, Green doesn’t seem like a priority at this stage. His agent did not return an email request for comment on negotiations between his camp and Washington.
Instead, the Capitals are expected to pursue a No. 7 defenseman in the heavier, veteran mold of what Tim Gleason provided them at the trade deadline, a cheap option who can support the younger, more puck-savvy Schmidt and Orlov. It could be in-house, like unrestricted free agent Steve Oleksy. It could be someone plucked from the post-July 1 leftovers for cheap. It could even be Gleason, a route that has not been ruled out.
As for Green, recall that MacLellan’s first deal as interim general manager obtained a fourth-round pick from the Islanders in exchange for Jaroslav Halak and the exclusive negotiating rights for the goaltender, who eventually became New York’s starter this season. If another team sees value in pitching Green on a deal during a time no other club can speak with him, MacLellan might pursue a similar approach.
Backstrom injury buoys Fehr, Beagle stock
With deadline acquisition Curtis Glencross not expected back, this leaves Eric Fehr and Jay Beagle in the crop of pending unrestricted free agents, both of whom the Capitals are expected to try and retain. MacLellan lumped Beagle into the group of restricted free agents on breakdown day, a sign he anticipated Beagle coming back, and with Washington likely to agree to a two- or three-year deal, settling on a contract value is the only remaining hurdle there.
Fehr’s recent elbow surgery, as well as the shoulder issue he experienced during the playoffs, might diminish his value on the open market, but in a thin free agent class, there will still be value for a 19-goal-scorer who kills penalties, wins faceoffs and anchored a checking line this season.
But MacLellan said the Capitals would “love to have him back,” and the mystery surrounding the timetable of center Nicklas Backstrom’s recovery from arthroscopic hip surgery, which often varies based on the individual’s response to rehabilitation, might further press Washington into focusing on Beagle and Fehr, who could provide early-season depth up the middle if Backstrom’s rehabilitation lags.
Patrick Sharp rumors come into focus
Several outlets have linked the Capitals to Chicago forward Patrick Sharp, an extension of their discussions around the trade deadline, which an individual with knowledge of the situation confirmed took place. However, no actual discussions have been reported at this stage, just the obvious connection between an available top-six winger and a team with just such a need.
“I think the Washington Capitals are a team that I see as a fit for him – among the many – but I think they would like to add a top-6 player there and a guy that’s won,” ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun told Montreal’s TSN 690, as transcribed by Chris Nichols here. “We know what the Caps’ issues are, right? So that would be an interesting fit for me. But who knows?”
Acquiring Sharp, however, might require some cap rejiggering on MacLellan’s end. The 33-year-old, who had 43 points in 68 games last season, carries a $5.9 million salary hit, possibly too much for the Capitals to stomach without shipping out some money in the hypothetical trade with Chicago, or even more in a separate, space-clearing deal. Depending on whether the NHLPA votes to invoke its escalator and raise the salary cap to roughly $72 million, and depending on how MacLellan spends his current space, Washington could still conceivably re-sign Beagle and Fehr, its RFAs — Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson — and a No. 7 defenseman with room to spare for Sharp, but it would be tight.
Of course, any acquisition of a goal-scorer would already cost pieces, prospects and/or picks, and MacLellan also told ESPN’s Craig Custance that the Capitals don’t plan to part with the No. 22 overall selection in this month’s NHL draft.
RFAs and how much to pay Holtby
The deadline for issuing qualifying offers to restricted free agents isn’t until June 29, at which point the Capitals will announce which players received them, but it’s clear MacLellan is already working toward reaching agreements before then. Holtby, Kuznetsov, Johansson, Patrick Wey, Stanislav Galiev and Chris Brown are all scheduled to become RFAs, and MacLellan mentioned that all – in some form or another – are expected back. Holtby’s deal remains the pace-setter for the Capitals’ offseason. He’s likely to command a long-term contract — two sources each estimated around five years and between $5 and $6 million — that will dictate how much more money Washington can apportion to others.
The values of their qualifying offers, assuming all have received them, are listed below:
Holtby: $2 million
Johansson: $2.175 million
Minor-league goaltenders Edward Pasquale and Brandon Anderson are also pending RFAs. Acquired on draft day, Pasquale battled hip issues all year and didn’t play. Anderson, meanwhile, split time between South Carolina and Tulsa in the ECHL this season, posting a 6-10-3 overall record, while also making one appearance in Hershey, allowing one goal in a 30-save victory.
The buyout window has opened and will continue until June 30 at 5 p.m., but MacLellan didn’t expect to use this option.
The full list of pending Washington free agents is below:
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Casey Wellman (June 4: signed in KHL)
Tim Kennedy (June 2: signed in KHL)
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Garrett Mitchell (June 2: re-signed to two-year, two-way deal)
Nate Schmidt (June 17: re-signed to two-year, one-way deal)
Philipp Grubauer (June 16: re-signed to two-year, one-way deal)