With the Washington Capitals‘ 2018-19 season now in the rearview, the team will assess their roster and staff over the summer to prepare for a run at their second Stanley Cup in three seasons. Salary cap constraints, however, could mean that next year’s roster could look quite different than the one that hoisted the Stanley Cup last season. Here’s a look at the biggest needs for the Capitals entering the offseason:
With the cap hit expected to rise to $82,000,000, the Capitals have $8,155,706 remaining in cap space after accounting for $1,150,000 in bonus overage this season. Forwards Brett Connolly, Carl Hagelin, Devante Smith-Pelly, and defenseman Brooks Orpik can become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Forwards Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, and defenseman Christian Djoos can become restricted free agents.
Five of the Capitals’ top-six forwards are locked up for the upcoming season, making re-signing Vrana, a pending restricted free agent, the team’s top priority for the summer. Vrana had a career year this season, tallying 24 goals and 47 points in 82 games. The Capitals and Vrana will need to determine whether they can reach a long-term agreement or settle for bridge deal for the Czech winger. Once the Capitals sign Vrana, they will be able to assess who else they can keep and remain under the cap.
With Connolly and/or Hagelin possibly walking out the door on July 1 and Burakovsky requiring a $3.25 million qualifying offer, the Capitals will need to add some offense to their third-line.
Connolly, who scored 22 goals and 46 points in 81 games, could demand somewhere around $4 million and it is possible that the team will not want (or be able) to pay a third-liner that much. Connolly and the Capitals have been a great fit for each other after the former number 6 overall pick by Tampa Bay during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft struggled to reach his potential with either the Lightning or the Boston Bruins.
Hagelin, coming off a four-year, $16 million contract with a $4 million AAV, said that he’s open to staying in Washington, but the Capitals might not have enough money to sign him depending on what other moves they make. Hagelin was a big addition to the Capitals penalty kill, but he added little offensively, accounting for just three goals and 11 points in his 20 games with Washington.
Burakovsky, who has played with Connolly and center Lars Eller on the third line for most of the past three seasons, could return to that spot if that Capitals re-sign him but that’s not a guarantee. While Burakovsky regained some of his jump at season’s end, his inconsistent play during the season means the Capitals could be reluctant to extend the $3.25 million qualifying offer to keep him. The Capitals could sign Burakovsky to a smaller contract as an unrestricted free agency if they don’t extend a qualifying offer. Burakovsky had seven of his 12 goals this season in the second half and had a great Game 7 in the team’s first-round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes, so there is a possibility that Burakovsky could be back.
Free agent options for the Capitals could include Hurricanes forward Michael Ferland, who finished the season with 17 goals and 40 points in 70 games; San Jose Sharks forward Joonas Donskoi, who ended 2018-19 with 14 goals and 37 points in 80 games; and Arizona Coyotes forward Richard Panik, who posted 14 goals and 33 points in 75 games this season.
Improved Penalty Kill
The Capitals’ efficiency of 78.9% on the penalty kill in the regular season was 24th in the NHL and the second-worst among teams that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs (Colorado Avalanche, 78.7%). Though the team is currently third in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a penalty killing rate of 88%, the potential losses of Hagelin, Stephenson, and Orpik would make for big holes to fill on the penalty kill.
Free agent defensemen who fit the bill include the Dallas Stars’ Ben Lovejoy, who finished second in the NHL with an average of 3:24 per game for the fifth-highest penalty-kill time in the regular season, and the Golden Knights’ Deryk Engelland, who finished seventh with an average of 3:12 per game on a penalty kill that was tied for 12th in the NHL.
On the forward side, Golden Knights center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who averaged 1:57 of ice-time on the penalty-kill, and New York Islanders center Valterri Filpulla, who averaged 1:51 on the penalty-kill, are some of the best options for penalty-killing forwards outside of the organization.
The Capitals 20.8% efficiency on the power-play was good for 12th place in the league but was a disappointment for a unit that includes stars like captain Alex Ovechkin, centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman John Carlson, and forward T.J. Oshie. The Capitals also struggled on the penalty-kill before a large part of the season and could see some changes in personnel over the offseason. The coaching on special teams this season were not where it needed to be.
Head coach Todd Reirden and company also struggled to adjust during the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which played a part in the early exit. The Capitals could benefit from the addition of a seasoned pro on the coaching staff to add some creativity to the power play, strengthen the penalty kill, and spot necessary tweaks when the team struggles.
With the potential departure of Orpik, the Capitals have their next six defensemen under contract and Djoos as a restricted free agent. While that would seem to lock down the defense, there is some speculation that defenseman Matt Niskanen could be moved to free up additional cap space. Niskanen, 32, will be entering his 13th NHL season this fall and has two years left on his contract, which has an average annual value of $5,750,000. He scored eight goals and 25 points in 80 games this season.
If the Capitals end up in the market for a depth defenseman to add to the roster, one candidate would be Brad Hunt, who recorded five goals, 12 points, a -2 rating, 28 blocked shots, 18 hits, and 22 takeaways while averaging 12:28 (including 2:25 on the power-play) worth of ice time in 42 games with the Golden Knights and Minnesota Wild this season.
San Jose Sharks defenseman Tim Heed, who recorded two goals, 13 points, a +9 rating, 31 blocked shots, 16 hits, 11 takeaways in 14:22 of ice-time per game (including 1:23 on the power-play) is another potential low-risk, high-reward addition for the Capitals.
After center Jay Beagle, who led the team with a 58% winning percentage on draws in 2017-18, left the team last summer, the Capitals’ 45.7% winning percentage on faceoffs in 2018-19 was the worst in the NHL by 1.2%. Nic Dowd (52%) was the only center on the team to win more than 50% of the draws that he took.
While the lack of faceoff prowess didn’t appear to hurt the Capitals, Bellemare, who finished the season with a faceoff-winning percentage of 54.7% (28th in the NHL) and Filpulla, who has won at least 50% of his draws in all but three seasons of his 15-year NHL career, could be possible targets if the Capitals decide they need help in the dot.
By Harrison Brown