Photo: NBC Sports Washington
Entering the 2019 offseason, the Washington Capitals‘ biggest unrestricted free agent is forward Brett Connolly, who set career-highs in goals (22), assists (24), and points (46) this past season. While re-signing Connolly before he can hit the unrestricted free agent market on July 1 is on General Manager Brian MacLellan‘s to-do list, there have to be limits on how much the Capitals can spend. Because of that, it might be better to let Connolly look elsewhere.
The Capitals have only $9,080,706 remaining in cap space with forward Jakub Vrana, a restricted free agent, expected to get a big raise after he notched 24 goals in 2018-19, the second-most on the team. If the Capitals decide to sign him to a long-term contract, re-signing Connolly will get a lot trickier.
Even if the Capitals trade defenseman Matt Niskanen, they will have enough money to re-sign Connolly but could still have a hole on the third-line unless the return in the possible Niskanen trade is only draft picks, which would give the team more money to spend. We have seen in the past how important it is to have a balanced third-line. The Capitals could sign two proven third-liners who can still score around 15 goals consistently for around $5.5 million combined, just a little bit more than what they would have to pay Connolly to retain him.
Connolly will likely want at least a $4 million cap hit but teams in desperate need of scoring could throw somewhere around $5 million at him and offer him a job in their top-six forward group. For a 27-year old who has hit the 20-goal and the 30-point mark, respectively, only once in his career (a contract year for him) and will most likely play on the third-line against next season, it may not make sense to match other lucrative offers since the Capitals can sign maybe two consistent 15-goal scorers for much less than what they will have to pay Connolly. He scored 15 goals in each of his first two seasons with the Capitals.
With center Nicklas Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin also due for new contracts in the next couple of years, it may be the Capitals’ best interest to avoid giving Connolly the kind of money that he will want to accommodate Ovechkin and Backstrom. Backstrom will likely demand at least $8 million per year after next season. With big contracts like defenseman John Carlson’s, forward T.J. Oshie’s, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s already on the books for the foreseeable future, the Capitals could end up in salary cap hell in a year or two’s time. Pitching in some of the money that the Capitals would be used on Connolly to extend Backstrom and Ovechkin makes more sense when forwards who produce at a similar rate to Connolly’s are available in free agency at a much cheaper price.
Another reason why re-signing him may not be for the best is because Connolly has never played a full 82-game season in his NHL career. Though he played 81 this past season and the one he missed was due to illness when the Capitals’ ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs was already punched, he has been a healthy scratch quite a few times in each of his previous seven seasons in the NHL a missed at least 12 games in each of his first two seasons in Washington.
Even though losing Connolly would hurt the secondary scoring, the Capitals had a league-high seven players who eclipsed the 20-goal mark in 2018-19 and the six other than Connolly are under contract for at least next season.
With Connolly set to hit the unrestricted free agent market in almost three weeks time, it may be best for the Capitals to let him sign elsewhere. Though if he will stay for the right price, the Capitals should certainly do it. For a team that has the top-six talent that and up against the salary cap like they are, it may be better for the Capitals to explore other ways to help the third-line. Besides, if secondary scoring was a major issue during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, why wouldn’t the Capitals want to change it? As tough as it would be to lose Connolly, letting him go might be the best long-term option for the Capitals.
By Harrison Brown