With no deal in place between the Washington Capitals and top defenseman John Carlson, the pending unrestricted free agent will begin meeting with other interested teams during the NHL’s six-day “interview period.” Carlson will officially hit the open market on July 1, and while dollars and terms can’t be discussed yet, he can use the next week to hear pitches from other clubs. The calls to Carlson’s agent, Rick Curran, have already started.
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan had seemed hopeful the two sides wouldn’t reach this point. He and Curran met on Thursday night at the NHL draft in Dallas, and Washington then made a cap-clearing trade on Friday night by shipping veteran Brooks Orpik (and his $5.5 million cap hit) to the Colorado Avalanche as part of a deal that also included goaltender Philipp Grubauer. That seemed to clear a path for the Capitals to re-sign Carlson, who is expected to receive something in the neighborhood of $64 million over the maximum eight-year term.
“We’re going to do our best to sign John,” MacLellan said Friday night. “We’ve said it all along. We waited until the end of the year, we’ve had discussions and hopefully we can close the deal here over the next 24 hours.”
Those 24 hours have now passed, and while it’s still more likely than not that Carlson re-signs with the Capitals, the defending Stanley Cup champions appear to be in jeopardy of losing their top blue-liner. The 28-year-old scored 15 goals with 53 assists to lead all NHL defensemen in scoring, and he followed that with five goals and 15 assists in the playoffs. His 24:47 average ice time was a career-high as he showed he can handle being a true No. 1 defenseman.
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. Though there’s mutual interest in him returning, Carlson knows he’s been playing at a discounted rate for an all-situations defenseman, and he’s likely not interested in doing so again.
“I love it here and all that,” Carlson said two weeks ago. “I want to stay here, but there’s more to it than that.”
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.
John Tavares, the New York Islanders’ pending unrestricted free agent center, is also going to hear what other teams have to say during the interview period, and he’s meeting with five clubs in Los Angeles this week. Carlson won’t host teams at a location, but he may visit a few of the top considerations should it come to that. The Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils could all use a defenseman of his caliber.
The Capitals also have extended a multiyear contract offer to pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Michal Kempny, according to a person familiar with the situation. Discussions between both sides are expected to continue on Monday, though Kempny can now also hear from other teams. Washington traded a third-round draft pick to Chicago for Kempny in February, and the speedy skater scored two goals and added three assists in 24 postseason games while averaging 17:42 of ice time.
Kempny and Carlson were a top pairing for the Capitals during the team’s championship run, and 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. 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.
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). Beagle said he’s willing to “wait and see what happens with a couple of the big guys,” and his preference would be to return to Washington after spending a decade there.
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