As the Washington Capitals devoted the first day of NHL free agency to plugging the bottom-six forward holes in their lineup with the low-key signings of Richard Panik, Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway, some of their rivals in the Metropolitan Division opted for blockbuster deals in what has turned into an offseason arms race.
Washington agreed to terms with Panik on Sunday, and the four-year, $11 million deal became official Monday afternoon when free agency opened. With the departures of Andre Burakovsky, who was traded to the Colorado Avalanche on Friday, and Brett Connolly, who signed a four-year, $13 million contract with the Florida Panthers on Monday, the Capitals needed someone to slot into the third line with center Lars Eller and left wing Carl Hagelin. Connolly had held that role for the past three seasons, recording 52 goals and 44 assists over that span to earn a payday from the Panthers.
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said he didn’t want to commit more than $3 million per season for the team’s new third-line right wing, and in Panik, Washington gets a speedy, two-way forward who finished with 14 goals and 19 assists for the Arizona Coyotes last season. The 28-year-old Slovak averaged more than 16 minutes per game, logging time on the penalty kill and power play, and he could get similar responsibilities with the Capitals.
“We like his two-way game,” MacLellan said. “He’s always produced somewhat offensively. We expect him to be that 35- to 45-point range. His five-on-five point production has been pretty solid. He can play in a top-six role at times. Then this year, I think we’ve been impressed by his [penalty killing] ability. . . . He’ll fit well on our third line.”
Panik said Washington was the first team he talked to during the unrestricted free agent interview period last week, and he signed with the Capitals because they were the only team to offer him a four-year deal. His best season was 2016-17, when he had 22 goals and 22 assists for the Chicago Blackhawks.
“Obviously I would like to get back on track on that 20-goal mark,” Panik said. “I think in Washington, with the style they're playing, I can do it easily.”
The additions of Leipsic and Hathaway will bring a new look to a fourth line that underwhelmed last season. Leipsic, 25, who had seven goals and 16 assists last season for the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings, received a league-minimum contract worth $700,000, and this will be his fifth team. Hathaway, 27, signed to a four-year, $6 million deal, plays a gritty, pugilistic game. He had 11 goals and eight assists for the Calgary Flames last season, and averaged 1:42 shorthanded per game, a sign the Capitals wanted to improve a penalty kill that has struggled. A four-year, $11 million extension for Hagelin last month was also done with the penalty kill in mind.
The Capitals also re-signed goaltender Vitek Vanecek on Monday evening to a three-year, $2.15 million contract. The first season of the deal will be a two-way contract, in which the 23-year-old will receive $700,000 if he plays in the NHL and $160,000 if he plays in the American Hockey League. The final two years will pay him $700,000 and $750,000, respectively, regardless of what league he plays in, which suggests the team expects him to be in the NHL in those seasons.
While Washington addressed specific needs, the team’s rivals in the Metropolitan Division made bigger moves. Most notably, the New York Rangers beat out the New York Islanders to land free agent prize Artemi Panarin on a seven-year contract worth $11.6 million annually. The Russian winger had 28 goals and 59 assists last season, and acquiring him marks the end of the Rangers’ rebuilding period after the team missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons. In addition to landing Panarin, New York added top-four defenseman Jacob Trouba in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets last month, and the Rangers used the No. 2 pick in the draft to select stud prospect winger Kaapo Kakko.
Meanwhile, the Islanders, considered the favorites for Panarin as recently as Sunday night, not only lost out on him but also parted with their top goaltender from last season in Robin Lehner, a Vezina Trophy finalist who reached a deal with the Blackhawks. New York instead signed former Capitals and Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov to a four-year, $20 million deal. After some question about whether the team would re-sign captain Anders Lee, who had 28 goals and 23 assists last season, the sides agreed to a seven-year, $49 million contract. The Islanders finished second to the Capitals in the division last season, largely because New York allowed the fewest goals in the league.
The other team to have a rough July 1 was the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose roster got decimated with the departures of Panarin, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (signed with Florida) and center Matt Duchene (signed with the Nashville Predators). Winger Ryan Dzingel is also an unrestricted free agent who could land elsewhere. The Blue Jackets recovered slightly by adding forward Gustav Nyquist on a four-year contract carrying a $5.5 million cap hit.
Elsewhere in the Metropolitan Division, the New Jersey Devils agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal with big, bruising winger Wayne Simmonds. After missing the playoffs last season, the Devils used the No. 1 pick to draft center Jack Hughes and then traded for star defenseman P.K. Subban, moves that are expected to correlate with a bump in the standings next season. The Pittsburgh Penguins, ousted in the first round last postseason, signed forward Brandon Tanev from the Jets for six years at $3.5 million per season. The physical forward recorded 14 goals and 15 assists last season.
“I think that the teams that were at the bottom all got better,” MacLellan said. “I would anticipate this is going to be the best division in the league. … We’ve won the Metro the last couple years, and I think the guys we brought in are really good players. So I think our team’s situated well.”
Arguably the most active team Monday was the Panthers, who in addition to signing Bobrovsky and Connolly also inked defenseman Anton Stralman and depth forward Noel Acciari. The seven-year, $70 million contract to Bobrovsky will directly affect the Capitals for the next year going into 2020 free agency. That deal will be used as the main comparable for Washington goaltender Braden Holtby, who is poised to become an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season. He might already be out of the Capitals’ price range.
“I don’t know if it affects the decision-making,” MacLellan said. “It’s a comparable. It’s a peer, and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success, and Holtby has a Stanley Cup on his résumé.”