Photo: David Becker/Getty Images
Entering the 2019 offseason, Washington Capitals‘ General Manager Brian MacLellan‘s top priority is to re-sign top-six forward Jakub Vrana, who is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. Earlier this year, MacLellan said the team is interested in locking up the 23-year old long term. While there are benefits to signing him to a long-term deal, salary cap constraints may make a bridge contract a better deal for both sides.
Vrana is coming off of a career year where he posted 24 goals, good for third-best on the Capitals, 47 points, which was sixth-best, and a +20 rating, which was third-best and the best among Capitals forwards. He played in all 82 games for the first time in his three-year NHL career and played primarily on the team’s second line, though he also saw time on the third line.
Despite a breakout regular season, Vrana was held off of the scoresheet in seven games during the Capitals’ First-Round series with the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He recorded a -1 rating and six penalty minutes, which was tied for the second-most on the Capitals behind captain Alex Ovechkin.
Vrana is expected to be a key contributor to the Capitals’ top-six forward group again next season and will be relied on heavily, especially if forward Brett Connolly, who set career-highs with 22 goals and 46 points in 82 games during the regular season, leaves as an unrestricted free agent. While the Capitals may look to add more forward depth this season, Vrana will still be relied on to contribute next season.
To re-sign Connolly, forward Carl Hagelin (who can also hit unrestricted free agency on July 1), or play in the unrestricted free agent market, the Capitals might opt to sign Vrana to a short-term deal to save money. Doing that could save $1.5-2 million in cap space. While Vrana may want a longer-term deal, he could sign a contract with shorter-term and bet on being able to and command big money as a restricted free agent in a couple of years.
Looking at the two extremes, the Capitals may use Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson’s three-year, $5.5 million contract ($1.85 million AAV) as a starting point as the team is tight up against the salary cap with only $10,080,706 left available to re-sign players and add to next year’s roster. Anderson signed that deal after he posted 17 goals and 29 points in 78 games in 2016-17 as a 23-year-old.
Vrana, meanwhile, is likely to point to Vegas Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch’s seven-year contract worth $33.25 million ($4.75 million AAV) as a comparison. Tuch signed that extension after averaging 0.47 points-per-game (Vrana averaged 0.57 in 2018-19.) Like Tuch, Vrana played top-six minutes this past season.
One comparable RFA to watch is Toronto Maple Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen is five months younger than Vrana and both averaged over 0.5 points-per-game. In addition, Vrana and Kapanen play for two of the highest powered offenses in the league and they both played on their respective team’s second-line towards the end of the season. Both teams face salary cap constraints and have big roster decisions looming.
The Capitals will most likely want to check the biggest box on their to-do list this offseason as soon as possible so they can see how much they can spend on unrestricted free agents.
With Connolly and Hagelin in need of new contracts and the Capitals in need of additional help in the bottom-six forward group, signing Vrana to a bridge deal may be the best option for a team that is up against the salary cap to remain in Stanley Cup contention for the next two seasons.
By Harrison Brown