After the Washington Capitals announced the hiring of Todd Reirden as coach, capping a busy month of June in which the franchise won the Stanley Cup for the first time, General Manager Brian MacLellan was clear on what his next big move would be: an extension for restricted free agent right wing Tom Wilson.
“It’s a big priority,” MacLellan said. “Tom’s a big part of our team, a big part of what we got going and our playoff success. So he’s No. 1 right now.”
Although there has been steady dialogue, a new contract isn’t “done or close,” said Wilson’s agent, Mark Guy. Washington owns Wilson’s negotiating rights, so it’s not a matter of if there will be an extension but when — and for how much. And because Wilson didn’t elect for arbitration, it’s unclear how late into the summer negotiations might last.
MacLellan’s preference is a long-term deal, and Guy said discussions so far have explored “something north of four years.” Wilson, 24, has already played five full NHL seasons, making that potential term at least two years beyond when he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-2020 season.
“We’ll see what his representatives want to do,” MacLellan said two weeks ago. “I’d prefer to keep him around for as long as we can.”
Wilson is coming off a career season in which he spent the majority of his minutes on the top line with captain Alex Ovechkin. He had 14 goals and 21 assists while playing an average of 15:59 per game — all career highs. He was again one of Washington’s top penalty killers, averaging 1:44 of shorthanded time per game. Although his physical style while playing a top-six role makes him stand out, it also led to three suspensions, one of which caused him to miss the season’s first four games and another that sidelined him for three playoff games. The fear he instills in opposing players is part of what makes him effective.
That’s also hard to quantify and likely why Wilson didn’t elect for arbitration, typically a small bit of leverage for more experienced restricted free agents. An arbitrator examines production: goals, assists, time on ice. For a player like Wilson, those stats don’t tell the full story of why he became such a significant part of the Capitals’ top line over the past year. And because he had never scored more than seven goals before this season, an arbitration case almost certainly would favor Washington. In the more than 691 even-strength minutes that Wilson and Ovechkin were on the ice together, 51.9 percent of the shot attempts went in the Capitals’ favor, according to Natural Stat Trick. When Ovechkin was without Wilson (over more than 531 minutes), that dipped to 49.0 percent.
Arbitration also doesn’t consider playoff performance. Wilson had five goals and 10 assists in 21 postseason games.
But while arbitration hearings can turn awkward, they also set an effective end date for a new deal. Without them, negotiations can last until training camp or even longer. Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov didn’t elect for arbitration two years ago and wound up not signing a new contract until Sept. 21, the week training camp was scheduled to start. Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Josh Anderson’s contract holdout last season dragged into October, and he missed the season opener.
It’s unlikely the situation with the Capitals and Wilson will devolve to that point. They drafted him in the first round six years ago and have long believers of the offensive upside he flashed this past season. He is one of the more beloved members of the dressing room because of his willingness to defend teammates — he fought 13 times during the 2017-18 regular season — and he is the sixth-longest-tenured player on the team while also still one of its youngest.
Washington has roughly $8.2 million in salary cap space with 20 projected roster players under contract, according to CapFriendly.com. Wilson’s previous contract was for two years at $2 million per season, and several industry insiders have ballparked the average annual value for his next deal at between $3.5 million and $4.5 million, depending on its length. Calgary just signed 23-year-old forward Elias Lindholm, who had 16 goals and 28 assists last season, for six years and $29.1 million (an AAV of $4.85 million). And while Wilson hasn’t produced offensively in the same way during his career, Lindholm’s contract is an example of how a team sometimes pays for potential as well as shaving off future unrestricted free agent seasons.
“I love it here,” Wilson said last month. “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.”
The Capitals’ only other restricted free agent is 23-year-old defenseman Madison Bowey, who is coming off a rookie season in which he played 51 games and notched 12 assists. MacLellan has said the team is considering adding a veteran blue-liner for its third pairing, and that could involve re-signing Brooks Orpik after Washington traded him to Colorado at the draft in a cap-clearing move. The Avalanche bought out the last year of Orpik’s deal, making the 37-year-old an unrestricted free agent.
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