The Capitals have about $11.2 million in salary cap space for five unrestricted free agents and five restricted ones, according to CapFriendly.com, but that’s assuming the salary cap stays at $75 million. Most project it to rise to roughly $80 million, which is good news for Washington, but it still leaves the team with some difficult decisions to make.
Here is a breakdown of each of the team’s free agents:
John Carlson, defenseman, 28, UFA
Carlson picked the right time for a career year. He had 15 goals and 53 assists, giving him 68 points to lead the league’s defensemen, and he showed he can play heavy minutes (24:47) while also garnering tough defensive assignments. His impressive postseason play (five goals and 15 assists) and his new status as a Stanley Cup champion boosted his reputation. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, an offensive-minded defenseman like Carlson who turns 27 next month, reportedly has agreed to an eight-year, $64 million extension with the Arizona Coyotes, and the Capitals would likely have to match that to keep Carlson.
That would make him the second-highest-paid player on the team, but right-shot defensemen who play in all situations — Carlson quarterbacks the top power-play unit — are a commodity and a key ingredient for winning teams. While the Capitals have some promising prospects on the blue line, they don’t have anyone who could immediately step into Carlson’s role, and acquiring a replacement through trade or free agency would be comparable in expense.
“We had a meeting somewhere in the middle of the season with his agent, and we just both agreed, ‘Let’s play out the season and, when the season ends, we’ll get in contact with each other,’ ” MacLellan said. “I would anticipate over the next week we’ll have a couple discussions going forward. … I thought he had an outstanding year, played great in the playoffs. I would really like to have him back on the team.”
If we learned anything last summer, it’s that MacLellan isn’t afraid to make a move to keep someone he likes. Washington re-signed right wing T.J. Oshie to an eight-year deal, then traded skilled left wing Marcus Johansson to free up salary cap space. If the Capitals hope to contend for the Stanley Cup next year, retaining Carlson is a significant step toward that. And after he has spent the past six years on a team-friendly deal worth slightly less than $4 million per year, he understandably doesn’t seem interested in taking another hometown discount.
“We’re going to be limited to a certain extent to what we can offer, but hopefully we can find a spot that satisfies both parties,” MacLellan said.
“We’ll see what happens,” Carlson said. “We’ll talk and go from there. I don’t really know what else to say other than that. I love it here and all that, I want to stay here, but there’s more to it than that.”
Michal Kempny, defenseman, 27, UFA
MacLellan expressed interest in his top-four defensemen returning, and along with Carlson, that includes Kempny, a trade-deadline addition who was a great fit on the top pairing. The Capitals traded a third-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in February for Kempny, who played in every playoff game and had two goals with three assists. Kempny’s strong skating complemented Carlson well; he was often the one going back for pucks, taking some of the burden off Carlson, who could then be more aggressive offensively.
“I just met with Michal,” MacLellan said. “We’d like to have him back. It’s been a great fit for us. He seems to really like it, and we’re going to try to work it out here over the next couple weeks.”
Kempny had been scratched for half the season in Chicago, and joining Washington revitalized his career. He especially praised associate coach Todd Reirden for helping his game flourish. He said the two already discussed a plan for what he can work on this summer to be better next season. Kempny’s cap hit was an uber-affordable $900,000 and, while he’ll get a raise, his contract should still be manageable for Washington.
“I want to be here, definitely,” Kempny said.
Jay Beagle, center, 32, UFA
Beagle understands that salary cap constraints mean his decade-long tenure in Washington could be ending. His last contract was three years long and worth $1.75 million annually, and the Capitals have young players and prospects on cheaper contracts — specifically Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson — who could fill that fourth-line center role and free up cap space. But Beagle is willing to be patient if it means staying with the organization.
“I think you kind of have to wait and see what happens with a couple of the big guys there,” Beagle said. “This team has a lot of decisions to make, and I don’t want to be a burden or anything on Mac. I’ll wait for him to contact me, and we’ll go from there. I’m hopeful I’ll be back. … This is my home. I obviously want to come back. You win a Cup here, you want to come back and enjoy that with next season, too. It’s something that’s pretty special and, leaving here for the summer on good terms, it’s the best feeling, and I want to come back. So I’ll just leave it up to Mac. He’s the boss of that, and we’ll see and wait to hear from him.”
MacLellan’s priorities are re-signing Carlson, Kempny and restricted free agent forward Tom Wilson, “and then depending on what the cap number comes in at, you work your way down and you see what you have left and you try to fill the bottom-six roles out with the money we have left.”
Beagle had seven goals and 15 assists in 79 regular season games, and he’s a top penalty killer. Perhaps more significantly, he’s a locker-room glue guy, respected for his consistent and tireless work ethic. He had two goals and six assists in 23 playoff games.
Tom Wilson, right wing, 24, RFA
Wilson has become an essential piece for the Capitals, the right-wing complement to captain Alex Ovechkin on the top line, and with Washington still in control of his rights, there are no worries about whether he’ll return next season. But after a career year that saw him score 14 goals with 21 assists while averaging nearly 16 minutes per night, he’s due a raise. His last contract with the Capitals was for two years and $4 million, and with Wilson arbitration-eligible and just two years away from unrestricted free agency, the team could opt for longer term rather than another bridge deal.
“Obviously at some point, there’s going to be an element of business to what’s going on,” Wilson said. “I don’t really want to think about it now. I haven’t even talked to my agent. I haven’t talked to even the coaching staff since we won. We’ll see. There’s going to be an element of having to get down and sort things out, for sure. It’s part of the business. It’s been — this year, no one can ever take this from you. It’s a family in that room now. Whatever happens with guys going forward, you’re always going to have that memory, you’re always going to be able to come back. I love it here. It feels like home. Toronto is my home. This is my home, too — 100 percent. I’ve had an amazing five years or whatever it’s been. Obviously, we’ll hope to be around and sort everything out when it has to be.”
Devante Smith-Pelly, right wing, 26, RFA
Around this time last year, Smith-Pelly got the surprising news that the last year of his contract had been bought out by the New Jersey Devils. Now he’s a fan favorite in Washington, and he’ll almost certainly be on the team next season with the Capitals in control of his rights. That means “there’s no real rush” to get a deal done, as Smith-Pelly put it, but he certainly helped his value with seven playoff goals, matching his regular season total.
“Obviously, my No. 1 priority is to be back, but you never know what can happen,” Smith-Pelly said. “I feel like I’ve found my spot here, and hopefully I’ll be back.”
Said MacLellan: “I think he’s become a big part of the team. He brings good energy, he’s a good teammate, he’s well-liked. I mean, you could tell teammates really migrate toward him and like him, and then the crowd also likes him. They’re chanting “D-S-P” all of the time. So it’s been fun how he’s got everybody to embrace him and his personality.”
Philipp Grubauer, goaltender, 26, RFA
Grubauer will almost certainly be traded this summer. Washington’s backup goaltender was so impressive in the second half of the season — posting a .937 save percentage and 1.93 goals against average in his final 27 appearances — that he beat out Braden Holtby for the starting job in the playoffs. The Capitals lost the first two games he was in net, and Holtby then backstopped the team to its first Stanley Cup. But Grubauer’s value remains high, and he has expressed that he wants to be a No. 1 goaltender. With Holtby under contract for two more seasons, that won’t happen in Washington, so MacLellan said he would explore a trade for Grubauer to get him a better opportunity elsewhere. A deal would also allow the Capitals to save some cap space by promoting Pheonix Copley, who makes the league-minimum $650,000, to be Holtby’s backup.
Alex Chiasson, right wing, 27, UFA
Chiasson played in 61 games this season, posting nine goals and nine assists. Considering his year started on a professional tryout at training camp that led to a one-year contract, a tenure with the Capitals that could end with his name on the Stanley Cup is pretty sweet. He was a healthy scratch for Washington’s finals series against Vegas, and considering some of the prospects the Capitals are eager to bring up and the other free agent priorities, he’s unlikely to be back.
“I hope it’s helping me prove in the league that I can play on a successful team and for myself as well, having the confidence,” Chiasson said. “Obviously this team here has been tremendous, but in my position you’re looking for stability and things like that. We’ll see how it goes.”
Madison Bowey, defenseman, 23, RFA
Bowey played in 51 games for the Capitals this season, and while he didn’t appear in the postseason, his future in the organization is still bright. He recorded 12 assists while averaging 13:43, and he’s expected to re-sign this summer. Depending on whom Washington brings back on the blue line in free agency, Bowey should be a favorite to make the opening night roster out of training camp.
Travis Boyd, center, 24, RFA
Expect Boyd to be back next season and likely playing somewhere in Washington’s bottom-six forward corps. He has had to be patient, but the Capitals are high on him, especially after how he acquitted himself in the three games center Evgeny Kuznetsov was out late in the regular season and also in Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, when Washington was down three forwards. If the Capitals don’t re-sign Beagle, Boyd could be his replacement as the fourth-line center.
Jakub Jerabek, defenseman, 27, UFA
The Capitals traded a 2019 fifth-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Jerabek, who played in 11 regular season games and two playoff contests. The continued improvement of Christian Djoos, who replaced Jerabek on the third pairing for the last 22 postseason games, along with Washington’s already strong pipeline of blue-line prospects, makes it unlikely Jerabek will re-sign.
More Capitals coverage: