After the Boston Bruins non-tendered Connolly a year ago, the Capitals signed him to a one-year, $850,000 contract that was ultimately a good fit for both parties. For Connolly, the No. 6 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2010 draft, Washington was where he revitalized his career, scoring a career-high 15 goals playing mostly on a third line alongside center Lars Eller. For the Capitals, he provided inexpensive secondary scoring that was essential to the team’s balanced offensive attack in the regular season.
But after Connolly was scratched in six of the team’s 13 playoff games and barely played in four of the other ones, it was unclear where he fit into Washington’s plans. He was often out of the lineup early in the season, and at one point, there was discussion of him requesting a trade out of the organization for more playing opportunity.
But when Connolly was given the opportunity to be a regular in the lineup, he seized it with impressive production for averaging just 10:41 a night of ice time. At his exit interview two days after the season ended, Connolly expressed a desire to remain with the Capitals, and General Manager Brian MacLellan reciprocated.
“He’s a young guy who still has some upside,” MacLellan said last month. “I thought he had a very good year this year.”
With Washington unlikely to retain any of its pending unrestricted free agents, Connolly is expected to again have a role on the third line next season and could be a candidate to replace forward Justin Williams on the second power-play unit.
When there were injuries to wingers last season, Connolly was often tabbed as a player who has the offensive ability to be able to move up the lineup while also being rugged enough to play in the bottom-six forward corps.
The Capitals still have center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov, winger Andre Burakovsky and goaltender Philip Grubauer as restricted free agents left to re-sign. Those players all received qualifying offers Monday.
The Capitals also qualified forwards Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Liam O’Brien, all three of whom spent the majority of last season in the American Hockey League. While Stephenson and O’Brien both appeared in the Capitals’ lineup last season, Boyd has yet to make his NHL debut. They’re expected to contend for depth roles with Washington next season.
The formality allows the Capitals to retain the negotiating rights to those players. Restricted free agents traditionally reject the one-year contracts, and both sides continue working toward a deal. The other RFAs who weren’t extended qualifying offers by Monday’s deadline were defensemen Cody Corbett and Darren Dietz, both of whom played all of last season with Washington’s minor-league affiliates, and are expected to enter free agency on Sunday. A qualifying offer also gives the Capitals the opportunity to match any offer sheet they may receive for an RFA, though those circumstances are rare.
While Burakovsky, a forward, and Grubauer, the backup goaltender behind Braden Holtby, could receive bridge deals this summer with a one- or two-year term, MacLellan said last month that he was open to signing both Kuznetsov and Orlov to long-term deals. Kuznetsov has shined as the team’s second-line center for the past two seasons, and after scoring 19 goals and 40 assists in the regular season, he was one of the team’s top players in the postseason with five goals and five assists in 13 games. Orlov took on more responsibility last season with a promotion to the blue line’s top four, and he recorded a career-high 33 points while averaging 19:32 a night.