With the Washington Capitals in line to bring back almost the entire roster from their Stanley Cup championship squad, Sunday’s first day of free agency was as expected for the team: quiet. As other clubs have entered into bidding wars, Washington has used July 1 for depth signings the past three years, preferring to promote from within or upgrade via trade.
The Capitals’ first move came during the first hour of free agency, signing 28-year-old center Nic Dowd to a one-year deal worth $650,000, the league minimum. With Jay Beagle officially leaving the organization Sunday for a four-year, $12 million contract in Vancouver, Dowd will offer some competition at Beagle’s old role as fourth-line center. Within 10 minutes of that signing, the Capitals also announced a two-year extension for center Travis Boyd, a 24-year-old who played eight games with the Capitals this season and was a restricted free agent. Boyd’s contract has an average annual value of $800,000.
It seems that Washington’s preference is for versatile forward Chandler Stephenson to stay at wing after his dynamic play there during the Capitals’ postseason run, so Dowd and Boyd are expected to compete to replace Beagle. Although Beagle expressed disappointment with his point production last season — he had seven goals and 15 assists in 79 regular season games — Washington will miss his penalty killing and 58.5 percent success rate on faceoffs, which ranked fourth in the NHL. The team’s third-longest-tenured player behind Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Beagle also was one of the most respected players in the dressing room.
“We waited [for Washington] obviously quite a while, and then when teams started reaching out, [General Manager Brian MacLellan] called my agent and said, ‘The Caps are not going to be there,’ ” Beagle said on a conference call Sunday. “So we kind of left it at that. I’m still planning on obviously calling Mac here soon just to talk to him and thank him for everything and the opportunity to play there.”
Since winning the Stanley Cup, the Capitals have focused on keeping their championship group together, re-signing defensemen John Carlson (to a massive eight-year, $64 million contract) and Michal Kempny (to a four-year, $10 million deal). But Washington has been hesitant to hand out contracts longer than a year for depth players because young forwards Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky are scheduled to be restricted free agents next summer, and the Capitals want to account for that as salary cap restrictions have become routine each summer. That took them out of the running for Beagle, who at 32 benefited from a thin free agent class for centers and was able to nearly double his salary.
Washington traded veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and goaltender Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche at the NHL draft in a cap-clearing deal, and those two, along with Beagle and depth forward Alex Chiasson, are expected to be the Capitals’ only roster turnover. Washington may look to add a veteran defenseman in free agency to play alongside Christian Djoos on the third pairing, but the team isn’t expected to sign a goaltender, comfortable with Pheonix Copley ascending to the role of Braden Holtby’s backup. That position can be upgraded through an in-season trade, if need be.
The Capitals also added a pair of veteran centers, Michael Sgarbossa and Jayson Megna, to one-year, two way contracts. They’re expected to play with the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League next season.
Boyd, 24, made his NHL debut against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 4, and he appeared in one playoff game, the second round-clinching Game 6 win against Pittsburgh. Boyd, a sixth-round pick in 2011, had 15 goals and 32 assists in 61 games with Hershey.
Dowd was traded from the Los Angeles Kings to the Canucks last season, and in 56 games between the teams he averaged 10:32 of ice time and finished with three goals and one assist. Without Beagle, the Capitals were low on right-handed faceoff men, and Dowd fills that need; he won 51.0 percent of his faceoffs last season. Although last season was a poor one for Dowd in terms of offensive production, he had six goals and 16 assists in 70 games for Los Angeles two years ago.
Washington hasn’t made a splashy move on July 1 since signing Justin Williams to a two-year deal in 2015. The past three starts of free agency have featured additions similar to Dowd — low risk and low cost with the potential for reward. The Capitals added Brett Connolly two years ago, and he has scored 15 goals in each season since. Last summer, Washington signed right wing Devante Smith-Pelly on July 3; after he scored seven playoff goals, he got a one-year, $1 million extension.
Most of the July 1 spotlight was on superstar center John Tavares, who opted not to re-sign with the New York Islanders in favor of a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. With center depth that includes Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri, the Maple Leafs could be the top challenger to the Capitals’ bid to repeat as champions.