Karl Alzner spent his last few minutes as a member of the Washington Capitals saying goodbye. He stopped by the team’s practice facility in Arlington to thank members of the team’s training and equipment staff, and then four minutes into the official start of free agency, he joined the Montreal Canadiens on a five-year deal worth $4.625 million per year.
The end of Alzner’s tenure in Washington appeared inevitable before his new deal. While Alzner, forward Justin Williams and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk all moved on to new teams with lucrative contracts on Saturday, the Capitals were quiet, handcuffed by their shrinking salary cap space. They officially announced a two-year, $3 million re-signing of Brett Connolly that was reported earlier this week, and they also added depth with winger Anthony Peluso getting a one-year, two-way contract for the league minimum. General Manager Brian MacLellan wasn’t made available to members of the media on Saturday.
Washington could struggle to re-sign its three remaining restricted free agents with the salary cap space the team has available after re-signing T.J. Oshie to an eight-year, $46 million deal and giving Dmitry Orlov an average of $5.1 million for the next six seasons. All of that contributed to the organization being mostly idle on the first day of free agency while three key pieces from last season’s team unsurprisingly moved on to new destinations.
“It was pretty clear from my end that there didn’t look like there was going to be an option in Washington,” Alzner said. “We asked a couple times to see if there was even a number or years or dollars or anything that they were looking at, and it just wasn’t possible. There’s big-ticket guys that needed to be signed and you can’t promise anyone anything until those get done, so we were pretty certain for probably two or three weeks now that we weren’t going to be able to come back and stay in D.C.”
Alzner wasn’t the only former Washington player to cash in. Williams got a pay raise with the Carolina Hurricanes, the team he won the Stanley Cup with in 2006, on a two-year deal that has an average annual value of $4.5 million. Shattenkirk was the afternoon’s highest-paid player with a reported four-year deal worth $26.6 million with the New York Rangers. In the challenging Metropolitan Division, those two teams got better on Saturday while the Capitals will lean on young and inexpensive players to stay competitive against them.
“I really like this team,” Williams said of the Hurricanes. “I like where it’s going and I think you can asked anyone with in the NHL who has played against the Hurricanes, they are a tough, tough team to play against and I experienced that playing for Washington and I want to help in any way I can to get this team to where it should be. …
“I hadn’t heard from Washington very much. You know, we had heard from them through the process, but certainly not as much as the other teams. They said they wanted to sign me, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that both sides are able to get it done.”
While Washington may have wanted to re-sign Williams, the team’s salary cap limitations likely made it impossible. According to CapFriendly.com, the Capitals have $62,543,440 tied up in 14 players expected to be on their NHL roster next season, leaving the team with $12,456,560 to spend before hitting the salary cap ceiling of $75 million. Assuming the Capitals carry a 22-man roster with one extra forward and one extra defenseman, that means that $12.45 million needs to cover the re-signings of restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer as well as five other player contracts.
Kuznetsov is expected to get a long-term deal, and his cap hit could be in the neighborhood of $6 million, meaning the Capitals will have very little room to maneuver and may have to trade a player for some cap relief. With goaltender Pheonix Copley re-signed to a two-year deal that will pay him the league minimum of $650,000 per season, Grubauer could be on the move. But if losing top-four defenseman Nate Schmidt for nothing in the Las Vegas expansion draft could be considered poor asset management, then desperately trading a quality young goaltender in Grubauer for less-than-ideal return wouldn’t be much better.
Even if Washington is able to clear some cap room, the team will likely still have to plug some lineup holes with players making the minimum salary. As the cap picture stands now, the $863,333 cap hit for 21-year-old winger Jakub Vrana could be too rich for the team. Instead, the Capitals may have to consider someone like Peluso, who was signed to a one-year, two-way deal worth $650,000 on Saturday. Peluso has played in 142 NHL games over four seasons in Winnipeg, and while it’s most likely he’ll spend most of next season in the American Hockey League, he could contend for a spot on the fourth line, partially because he’s inexpensive.
But when Alzner was asked if he still expects the Capitals to be a good team next season, he didn’t hesitate.
“Oh yeah,” Alzner said. “There’s going to be a few changes, but you still have some of the main guys there. … I expect them to still be competitive. I expect them to be a step below the Montreal Canadiens.”