With a puck that glanced off the stick of Carolina Hurricanes forward Brock McGinn and fluttered past goaltender Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals’ offseason arrived, roughly six weeks sooner than anyone in the organization planned. Next summer is the big one, when Holtby and top center Nicklas Backstrom will be pending unrestricted free agents, but the decisions General Manager Brian MacLellan makes in the coming months will be geared toward making the most of what could be the team’s final season with its star core intact.
Captain Alex Ovechkin still has two seasons left on his contract, but with no guarantees that Backstrom and Holtby will be back after next year, the Capitals again will be in win-now mode as MacLellan considers roster tweaks this summer. Coming off its first Stanley Cup, Washington experienced very little turnover going into this season, but that won’t be the case this time with four unrestricted and five restricted free agents.
The salary cap maximum is expected to rise to $83 million, a $3.5 million bump that the typically cap-crunched Capitals could use. But because Washington used up all of its room this season, the bonuses the team owes to defenseman Brooks Orpik ($500,000), forward Jakub Vrana ($600,000) and defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler ($50,000) will come off next year’s books, a $1.15 million overage penalty, according to CapFriendly.com.
Vrana is expected to be the team’s top offseason priority after he scored a career-high 24 goals with 23 assists in the final season of his entry-level contract. MacLellan has said the Capitals prefer a long-term deal, in which case Vegas Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch is a conservative comparable. Like Vrana, Tuch was a first-round draft pick in 2014, and after scoring 15 goals with 22 assists in 78 games last season and then six goals with four assists in 20 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup finals, Tuch got a seven-year, $33.25 million contract that carries an annual cap hit of $4.75 million. Vrana’s numbers are better, so he probably would command more, but his side could push for a bridge deal, something with a term of three years or fewer as a hedge that Vrana’s production will continue to climb along with the salary cap, making for a bigger payday.
Teams don’t typically part with their restricted free agents, but outside of Vrana, it’s unclear whose negotiating rights Washington will choose to retain. The Capitals claimed forward Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers before the season, but he played in just one game after Feb. 17, so he’s unlikely to be back. Chandler Stephenson was similarly in and out of the lineup with five goals and six assists in 64 games, and while Washington could bring him back on an inexpensive deal to continue playing a fourth-line, penalty-killing role, those players tend to be expendable. Defenseman Christian Djoos struggled in his second season, but that almost certainly was due to compartment syndrome, which cost him two months. Expect him to be back.
The most interesting case is forward Andre Burakovsky, who started the season so poorly the team considered trading him. The Capitals ultimately decided against it, and he finished the year off on a high note with 17 of his 25 points coming in the final 41 games of the regular season. He was one of Washington’s best players in Wednesday’s Game 7, scoring the first goal of the game. But while the Capitals might want to re-sign Burakovsky, the qualifying offer to retain his rights and prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent July 1 is $3.25 million, probably too rich for the team. As they have done with other players in recent years, the Capitals could roll the dice by not tendering Burakovsky a qualifying offer with the aim of re-signing him to a cheaper extension before he hits the open market.
Of the unrestricted free agents, Orpik and forward Devante Smith-Pelly are the least likely to be back. Orpik has been an alternate captain for five years in Washington, but the 38-year-old has acknowledged he is “year to year” as he ponders retirement, and the Capitals have a strong pipeline of young blue-liners who could use an opportunity on the team’s third pairing. Smith-Pelly became a fan favorite in Washington with his brilliant postseason play a year ago, but things between him and the Capitals turned sour from the moment he was held out of some preseason games this season for failing to meet certain conditioning standards. The organization waived him in February, sending him down to the minors before recalling him halfway through the first-round series against Carolina.
The other two pending unrestricted free agents are forwards Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin, both of whom the Capitals probably would like to keep, though it’s unlikely they can afford both. Connolly has more offensive upside, and he’s coming off a career season with 22 goals and 46 points that will garner plenty of suitors. Washington acquired Hagelin from Los Angeles for a third-round pick, and his speed enabled him to play on any line. He also immediately became the Capitals’ top penalty-killing forward, something the team was missing after the departure of Jay Beagle last summer. Hagelin is arguably more versatile than Connolly, but he also is four years older.
The biggest potential splashcould come on the trade market. When Washington traded for right-shot defenseman Nick Jensen in February and then immediately inked him to a four-year, $10 million extension, that gave the team flexibility to create more cap space for both this summer and next by potentially trading defenseman Matt Niskanen, who has two years left on a deal that carries a $5.75 million cap hit. Niskanen has played in the Capitals’ top four for five years and has been a solid shutdown blue-liner, but his play deteriorated this season, and Jensen was brought in as someone who had handled a 20-minute workload with Detroit. The hitch is that Jensen was just average in his short stint with the team, something that could be remedied with more time to adjust to a new system. On the other hand, it could give MacLellan pause as he considers his options this offseason.
Washington’s long run to a championship last season left MacLellan with a shorter offseason with which to work. He has more time this year but arguably more to do as the Capitals’ window for another Stanley Cup just got a little smaller.