“He’s become a big part of the team,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said earlier this month. “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.”
Smith-Pelly was one of the Capitals’ top players during their run to the Stanley Cup, scoring seven goals in 24 playoff games to match his regular season total. He played mostly on the fourth line, but he was also occasionally used in a top-six role, temporarily promoted to the top line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin when Tom Wilson was suspended for three games. Smith-Pelly’s strong postseason play would have made him a coveted free agent, and he turned down more lucrative one- and two-year contracts elsewhere because of an emotional attachment to Washington, a person with knowledge of the situation said.
“Without getting into specifics, yeah, I had a couple other offers for one- or two-year deals,” Smith-Pelly said Thursday, “but I thought it wasn’t really worth it to leave from somewhere I’m happy and where I really want to be.”
With Smith-Pelly a restricted free agent, the Capitals owned his rights, and tendering a qualifying offer to maintain those is typically a formality. Since Smith-Pelly made the league minimum $650,000 last season, a qualifying offer would have been for $715,000, which Smith-Pelly would have almost certainly rejected, as most restricted free agents do. But Smith-Pelly was arbitration-eligible, and with Washington concerned about salary cap constraints, the team feared he would have a strong case if negotiations went to arbitration, in which an arbiter rules on either a one- or two-year salary. Had Smith-Pelly been awarded a larger salary than the Capitals were prepared to pay, the team would have been stuck paying that amount.
By not qualifying Smith-Pelly on Monday, the sides were able to avoid the arbitration process and find common ground for an extension before July 1. Smith-Pelly scored seven goals and added nine assists during 75 regular season games. He signed with the Capitals a year ago after the last year of his contract was bought out by the New Jersey Devils, and he called this year in Washington “the best” of his life.
“I have been in a couple places, and it would be nice to just stick in one place for a couple years, and hopefully if this works out, longer than just next year,” Smith-Pelly said. “It definitely plays a role in the decision. It’s good to come back and be in the same place consecutive years.”
The Capitals have roughly $12.2 million left in salary cap space, according to CapFriendly.com, and the team is making a push to re-sign pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Michal Kempny before Sunday. Wilson, a pending restricted free agent, is also due a pay raise and could sign a long-term deal. Should Washington extend both players, it will be in line to return its top nine forwards and top four defensemen — as well as its top 10 postseason scorers — as it seeks a Stanley Cup repeat.
“The team, I think everyone can see how close we are,” Smith-Pelly said. “We all want to come back and play and try it again with the same group. Obviously, it might not work that way, but I think that is what everyone’s intention is. This group is incredibly close, and I’m comfortable there. Obviously, the city has embraced me and is a beautiful place to live. Like I said, the money is not that important to me personally if I won’t be happy somewhere else.”
Kendra Andrews contributed to this story.
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