In a summer when the Washington Capitals have shown little restraint in spending, the organization made its biggest deal yet Sunday evening by signing restricted free agent center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight-year, $62.4 million contract extension.
But because they were already facing salary cap constraints with more than $70 million of a $75 million salary cap committed to just 15 players, the Capitals were forced to shed salary. That move came an hour after Kuznetsov’s new deal was announced when the team traded winger Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for second- and third-round picks in next season’s NHL draft.
With teams almost certainly aware of Washington’s bleak salary cap picture, the Capitals had little leverage in dealing a skilled 26-year-old top-six forward within the Metropolitan Division. Johansson is coming off a career year with 24 goals and 34 assists, but trading him for draft picks clears his $4.583 million salary cap hit and gives the team more wiggle room to re-sign restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer.
Before the trade, the Capitals had roughly $4.6 million for Burakovsky, Grubauer and five other contracts to fill the roster. With Burakovsky and Grubauer both due raises, the team didn’t have enough cap space to field a 22-man roster even if those five other players were making the league minimum. After trading Johansson, Washington now has $9,239,893 in cap room, according to CapFriendly.com.
That’s the consequence of re-signing right wing T.J. Oshie to an eight-year, $46 million deal last weekend and then giving defenseman Dmitry Orlov a six-year, $30.6 million deal Friday. Those deals each carry cap hits of upward of $5 million, and including Kuznetsov’s contract, the team has committed $139 million to three players in the past 10 days.
“At some point, especially with re-signing Oshie, Orlov and now Kuznetsov, that’s one of the teams we had watched quite a bit, including Marcus, and something had to give at some point, which it usually does,” New Jersey General Manager Ray Shero told reporters Sunday night. “We’re not getting Marcus Johansson without them having a cap issue.”
With Johansson out, Washington has a hole in its top-six forward corps, and the most likely candidates to contend for that job opening are wingers Jakub Vrana, Brett Connolly and Tom Wilson. Vrana is a 21-year-old prospect who played in 21 games last season, recording three goals and three assists. The team re-signed Connolly on Saturday to a two-year, $3 million deal after he scored a career-high 15 goals last season. Wilson is a rugged forward and 2012 first-round pick the Capitals have hoped would produce more offensively after he has scored just 21 goals total in the past four seasons.
Trading Johansson is the latest move in what has been a difficult summer for Washington. Coming off a third straight second-round exit in the postseason after posting the league’s best regular season record in back-to-back years, the Capitals lost defenseman Nate Schmidt in the Vegas expansion draft for nothing after they tabbed him for a top-four role. Had the team expected to move salary this summer to re-sign its restricted free agents and retain Oshie, then Washington may have been able to trade Johansson or another player before the expansion draft to protect Schmidt and keep the blue line intact.
The Capitals also chose not to buy out 36-year-old defenseman Brooks Orpik, who played reduced minutes last season and has a $5.5 million cap hit for the next two years. Johansson is under contract for two more seasons with a $4.583 million cap hit, and as a comparison, winger Justin Williams just signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes that is worth an average of $4.5 million annually. Williams is nine years older than Johansson and scored 10 fewer points with Washington last season.
It’s unclear if the Capitals will use some of their new salary cap room to address the hole left by Schmidt’s departure on the blue line, or if that money will be dedicated to re-signing Burakovsky and Grubauer with unproven prospects stepping into the vacancies in the lineup. General Manager Brian MacLellan will hold a conference call with reporters Monday.
With an average annual value of $7.8 million, Kuznetsov is now the second-highest-paid player on the team behind star captain Alex Ovechkin. He is also now the NHL’s ninth-highest-paid center. Kuznetsov has spent the majority of the past two seasons as the team’s second-line center, and he was the Capitals’ leading scorer two seasons ago with 20 goals and 57 assists. After a slow start to last season, he finished with 19 goals and 40 assists, scoring 50 points in the last 61 games. Kuznetsov then had a strong performance in the playoffs with five goals and five assists in 13 games.
Kuznetsov’s deal includes $28 million in signing bonuses and has a modified no-trade clause in the last six seasons, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. It’s possible that the 25-year-old had the leverage of potentially returning to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in negotiations.
“Evgeny is a premier center in the NHL, and we are pleased that he will remain in Washington for at least the next eight years,” MacLellan said in a release. “It is difficult to find a player of his caliber, who is in his prime and makes his teammates better. Evgeny plays with a tremendous skill, speed and tenacity needed to win in the NHL.”