Photo: NBC Sports
With the Washington Capitals‘ 2018-19 season coming to an early conclusion with a seven-game loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the First Round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, team management is turning their attention towards improving over the summer. Top priorities include re-signing forwards Jakub Vrana, who can become a restricted free agent on July 1 after scoring 24 goals and 47 points in 82 regular season games, and Brett Connolly, who can become an unrestricted free agent after scoring 22 goals and 46 points in 81 regular season games. General Manager Brian MacLellan also expressed interest in re-signing forward Carl Hagelin, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Salary cap constraints will make bringing back all three of those players back hard enough, but those decisions also have to be made keeping in mind that center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby are eligible to sign contract extensions on July 1. Backstrom and Holtby currently take up $12.8 million in cap space, and both have been critical parts of the Capitals’ core.
Keeping Connolly and Vrana could cost the Capitals close to $8 million depending on contract length. If that is the case and the salary cap rises to the expected $82 million, the Capitals will likely either have to move on from Hagelin or make another move to accommodate him, which could include trading defenseman Matt Niskanen or not extending a qualifying offer to forward Andre Burakovsky, a restricted free agent who has struggled to produce consistently throughout his NHL career. Should the Capitals tender a qualifying offer to Burakovsky, his cap hit would be at least $3.25 million, a hefty price for a 12-goal scorer in each of the past two seasons. (The Capitals could decline to make Burakovsky a qualifying offer and try to sign him for a cheaper contract after he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.)
Whatever the Capitals decide to do with Hagelin, who will turn 31 on August 23, will require MacLellan to make some tough decisions. After the team acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a 2019 third-round pick, he averaged 2:21 on the penalty kill, a team-high among forwards. Before the Capitals acquired Hagelin, they were 22nd on the penalty kill with an efficiency of 78.4%. From his first game to the end of the regular season, the Capitals recorded an efficiency of 80% with a man down. In the team’s First Round series against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they posted an efficiency of 88% with Hagelin averaging 2:56 worth of ice-time per game on the penalty kill, the fourth-highest on the Capitals.
Before recording only one assist and a -1 rating in the Capitals’ seven-game loss in the First Round, he tallied three goals, 11 points, and a +7 rating in 20 regular season games with the team. He had two goals, eight points, and an even rating in 38 games with the Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins before he arrived in Washington. Defensively, Hagelin posted five blocked shots, 13 hits, 13 takeaways, and nine giveaways during his time with the Capitals.
He fit in nicely on the third line with center Lars Eller and forward Brett Connolly. When forward T.J. Oshie went down with a broken clavicle in Game 4 against the Hurricanes, it was Hagelin who was elevated to his second line spot with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vrana. The trio combined for just one goal and four points in the last three games, with Kuznetsov accounting for three of those points, including the goal.
On the Capitals’ breakdown day, Hagelin said that he would be open to returning next season, saying he thought it was a good fit for him. MacLellan said that bringing him back would depend on his asking price.
Besides his strong speed and defensive instincts, another reason to bring Hagelin back would be to avoid him in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Of the 58 career games that he has played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, 35 (60%) of them have come against the Capitals. His team is 19-16 in those games.
Hagelin’s 19 points this past season were his lowest since the 2012-13 lockout season when he averaged 0.5 points-per-game. Had Hagelin played in 82 games in each of the past three seasons, he would have been in the 30-35 point range in every one of those years. He will likely command a cap hit within the $3-4 million range.
Even if the Capitals don’t qualify Burakovsky and trade Niskanen to free up cap space, it will still require a lot of creativity to fit both Hagelin and Connolly under the salary cap. With Connolly younger and coming off of a career year, the team will obviously have him higher on their list of offseason priorities. Hagelin may be forced to look for a new home but if there is a way to sign him, the Capitals should absolutely do it.
By Harrison Brown