NHL free agency opens on Monday, with this year’s class of available players boasting the likes of San Jose star Joe Pavelski and a trio of Columbus Blue Jackets: goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, winger Artemi Panarin and center Matt Duchene.
Don’t expect the Washington Capitals to touch any of them.
While other teams may be buying new toys like it’s Christmas in July, the Capitals don’t have much room to take on another flashy player. With the majority of Washington’s core still intact about 13 months removed from winning a Stanley Cup, the front office will approach free agency with a short wishlist.
According to capfriendly.com, the Capitals have about $9.235 million in cap space. Some of that will be allotted to Jakub Vrana, who is expected to sign a new deal this summer. Vrana was one of four NHL-level restricted free agents whom the Capitals tendered qualifying offers Tuesday, along with Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos.
When those players sign their tenders or longer-term deals, it likely won’t leave enough money to also bring back an unrestricted free agent like Brett Connolly. Connolly posted a career-high 22 goals and 24 assists playing mostly on Washington’s third line, but other teams may be able to offer him both a higher salary and a larger role as a top-six forward, which the Capitals cannot.
“I think he’s earned the right to listen to all the teams and to see where they fit with opportunity and financially,” general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters before the draft.
For the same reason, the Capitals are all but precluded from pursuing a top UFA from another team. But that won’t bother the front office — they have already taken care of some to-do items weeks before free agency opens.
A few months after acquiring him at the trade deadline, the Capitals signed Carl Hagelin to a new four-year, $11 million contract. On the blue line, they swapped Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas to save some money. In fact, with Djoos receiving a qualifying offer, the Capitals have their seven best defensemen locked up for at least next season.
So the focus shifts to forward, where the top three lines are filled in nicely with the likes of Vrana, Hagelin and Burakovsky alongside superstars like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. If Washington has a need anywhere in its lineup, it’s a new bottom-six scoring option at left or right wing, especially after their production dried up in the postseason.
Some names to keep an eye on in this realm are Joonas Donskoi (14 goals, 23 assists last season), Pontus Aberg (12, 13), Markus Granlund (12, 10) and Noel Acciari (six, eight). Acciari’s regular season numbers don’t seem to stack up at first glance, but it’s worth noting he has also scored at least one point in each of the last five Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Boston Bruins, including two goals and two assists this spring as Boston reached the Final.
The Capitals have gone the route of less-flashy signings before, and a few have paid off. On July 1 last year, with Jay Beagle preparing to depart in free agency, Washington signed center Nic Dowd to a one-year contract. Dowd settled into the fourth-line center role, had a career year and ended up receiving an extension before the season was out.
Around the league, the biggest pre-July 1 moves thus far have contained few surprises. All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson opted to stay with the Sharks on an eight-year, $92 million deal. The Nashville Predators decided to move on from charismatic blueliner P.K. Subban and found a taker in New Jersey.
No, it’s not the soap opera the NBA puts on every summer, but player movement is sure to alter the hockey landscape in the coming weeks. The Capitals, though, are more than likely to come out looking largely the same.
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