“I think our needs shifted,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said this week. “We had bigger holes to fill. Now that [Tom] Wilson’s solidified himself, [Jakub] Vrana seems to be on his way, our needs are different, so I don’t think we need to participate in that market.”
It’s expected to be another low-key July 1 in Washington. The salary cap for the upcoming season has been set at $81.5 million, a significant drop from the initial projection of $83 million. That leaves the Capitals with roughly $9.2 million to sign their four restricted free agents and perhaps add one unrestricted free agent forward, according to CapFriendly.com. After extending a $3.25 million qualifying offer to winger Andre Burakovsky on Tuesday as well as re-signing Carl Hagelin to a four-year, $11 million deal this month, Washington’s top-nine forward corps is likely rounded out, and the attention is now shifting to “maybe tinkering with our fourth line a little bit,” MacLellan said.
“Whatever happens in our bottom six [forwards], those would be the areas we’re addressing,” he said.
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It’s possible MacLellan still could significantly shake up his roster, but it would almost certainly be through a trade because that would allow him to move salary out to take some on. While Washington was linked to pending unrestricted free agent Marcus Johansson, who played for the Capitals from 2010 to 2017, his expected payday north of $5 million per season would be too tight a financial squeeze with Vrana still unsigned. The 23-year-old restricted free agent is coming off a career season with 24 goals and 23 assists, and though he doesn’t have the leverage of arbitration rights, a new bridge deal for him could carry a cap hit in the neighborhood of $4 million.
The Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders and New York Rangers are expected to be among the big free agent spenders for a class that includes star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, sniper Artemi Panarin and center Matt Duchene. More realistic targets for Washington could include Brandon Tanev, Joonas Donskoi and Noel Acciari, though Donskoi and Tanev are more middle-six forward options than Acciari, a fourth-liner who impressed during the Boston Bruins’ long playoff run.
The Capitals also could have interest in some of the restricted free agents who didn’t receive qualifying offers from their respective teams by Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline, which makes those players eligible to sign anywhere Monday. Washington successfully plucked winger Brett Connolly from that crop three years ago, and Connolly’s career-high 22 goals and 24 assists last season may have put him out of the Capitals’ price range as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Notable non-tendered players include forwards Ryan Hartman, Nick Cousins, Markus Granlund and Brendan Leipsic.
Capitals make qualifying offer to restricted free agent forward Andre Burakovsky
For teams such as the Capitals who consistently face salary cap constraints, free agency tends to be a too-pricey way of improving the roster, reserved for the clubs who want to make a big jump into contender status and have the financial flexibility to do so. MacLellan has to weigh wanting to make changes after last season’s disappointing playoff first-round exit while still respecting that a near-identical roster won a franchise-first Stanley Cup just a year earlier. His assessment immediately after the season was that while the Capitals’ superstar core of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom delivered, Washington didn’t get enough from its supporting cast, and he was especially underwhelmed by the fourth line. Then MacLellan watched as the St. Louis Blues and Bruins got steady contributions from their fourth lines in this year’s Stanley Cup finals.
With Jay Beagle at center, the Capitals’ fourth trio had been a difference-maker during the 2018 playoff run, when forward Devante Smith-Pelly chipped in seven goals. But Beagle moved on in free agency last summer, and last season’s fourth line was a revolving door of forwards, with Coach Todd Reirden never really settling on one group of three. “It seemed to be in flux the whole year,” MacLellan said. Washington is expected to return fourth-line forwards Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd, but don’t expect MacLellan to keep things entirely intact with his current roster.
“We had some guys that I would evaluate that didn’t have a good year,” MacLellan said. “And maybe we need to change the chemistry a little bit.”
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