DALLAS — Although the Washington Capitals now have considerably more money to work with after their salary-clearing trade Friday night, the team hasn’t started spending any of it yet. Washington’s preference would be to sign defenseman John Carlson before the window for the pending unrestricted free agent to meet with other teams opens at noon Sunday, and while General Manager Brian MacLellan described the sides as “really close” Friday night, they nonetheless remained apart Saturday afternoon.
The Capitals also have extended a contract offer to pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Michal Kempny, according to a person familiar with the situation, but Washington had yet to hear back from Kempny’s agent. Kempny is represented by J.P. Barry, who might have been busy with Russian winger Ilya Kovalchuk on Saturday afternoon. (After a five-year break from the NHL, Kovalchuk agreed to a three-year deal worth $6.25 million annually with the Los Angeles Kings.)
Carlson and Kempny were the Capitals’ top defensive pairing during the team’s playoff run, which ended with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship. Carlson was drafted by Washington in the first round 10 years ago, and he has been on a team-friendly contract for the past six seasons that paid him roughly $4 million per year. With Carlson coming off a career year with 15 goals and 53 assists, making him the top-scoring blue-liner in the NHL, while averaging more than 25 minutes per game, his salary is expected to at least double.
Carlson’s agent, Rick Curran, said in a text message Friday night that he was “certainly encouraged by the move to create the necessary cap space,” after Washington packaged veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik (and his $5.5 million salary cap hit) with backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche. Earlier this month, Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson reportedly agreed to an eight-year deal worth $8.25 million per season, and Carlson’s agent is likely pushing for similar terms. Ekman-Larsson is two years younger, but he and Carlson have averaged roughly the same amount of points per game in their career. If Carlson hits the open market July 1, he could only get a seven-year contract at most, but he would be the best blue-liner available.
Carlson is the Capitals’ free agent priority — right-shot, heavy-minute, all-situations defensemen are incredibly difficult to replace — but the team is also high on Kempny after how seamlessly he fit in the lineup. Washington traded a third-round draft pick to Chicago for Kempny in February, and he scored two goals and added three assists in 24 postseason games while averaging 17:42 of ice time. Kempny’s speedy skating was a good complement on Carlson’s left side; Kempny often got back for pucks, which took some burden off Carlson and allowed him to play more aggressive offensively.
Although Carlson could become the second-highest-paid player on the Capitals, a new deal for Kempny would come at a significantly lower cost. He’s coming off a $900,000 salary cap hit, and the 27-year-old Czech’s next contract isn’t expected to top $3 million per season. Re-signing both players would mean the Capitals are in line to return their top nine forwards and top four defensemen, positioning the team to compete for a second straight Stanley Cup.
Washington has more than $21 million to work with now that the salary cap has jumped to $79.5 million for next season. MacLellan has said the Capitals’ priorities are Carlson, Kempny and restricted free agent winger Tom Wilson, and then the team will “make some decisions after that.” Other notable pending free agents include center Jay Beagle (unrestricted) and right wing Devante Smith-Pelly (restricted).
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