While goaltender Braden Holtby is arguably the biggest unrestricted free agent on the Washington Capitals, the team has some big decisions on defense looming after the 2019-20 season is over. Brenden Dillon and Radko Gudas can become unrestricted free agents, Jonas Siegenthaler can become a restricted free agent, and Martin Fehervary and Alexander Alexeyev could make the jump to the NHL in the very near future. Though, Fehervary is closer to being NHL-ready than Alexeyev.
Note: one huge caveat in this analysis is the salary cap for next year. Given the pause in the regular season and the very real possibility that the Stanley Cup Playoffs could be shortened, or even canceled, hockey-related revenue will see a huge hit.
As of now, this is what the team’s projected top-six defense is going to look like:
Michal Kempny — John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov — Nick Jensen
Martin Fehervary — Jonas Siegenthaler
While there is some promising talent on that blueline, there are issues nonetheless. Kempny, who will have two years remaining on his contract, should benefit from a full summer (and perhaps more) of skating and workouts after recovering from a torn hamstring late last season. But that doesn’t mean that he will return to the level that he was at before the injury, when he led the Capitals with a +24 rating. The fact that he will turn 30 on September 8, which could be just prior to training camp if the 2019-20 season is canceled, is another reason for concern.
The Capitals have plenty of defensemen in the pipeline like Alexeyev and Fehervary. Siegenthaler has been strong this season when leaned upon, but it is not ideal to have two young defensemen as a pair. That could create matchup nightmares for the Capitals. With Gudas likely not returning after this season, the best option would be to sign another top-four defenseman and pair Kempny with Siegenthaler, while Fehervary would likely stick with the team as the seventh defenseman.
The team could either re-sign Dillon or turn to the free-agent market. The best options on the market among left-handed defensemen include Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins, Erik Gustafsson of the Calgary Flames, Joel Edmundson of the Carolina Hurricanes, and T.J. Brodie of the Flames.
With contract extensions coming up for top forwards Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana, Krug would almost certainly not be affordable. Gustafsson is a solid defenseman but is mostly known for his offense. Would the Capitals be comfortable with two offensive defensemen on the same pair? The Nashville Predators had that option when they traded for P.K. Subban and instead put him and captain Roman Josi on different pairs. It is probably not the ideal route.
Brodie would be an intriguing option, though. The 29-year old has posted at least 30 points in six straight seasons before recording 19 in 64 games this year and had a career-high +29 rating last year. His play has dipped, but he still has a solid +7 rating while averaging 20:27 per game, the fourth-highest on the Flames, including 1:39 shorthanded and 37 seconds on the power-play. Brodie is a solid shot-blocker with 89 blocks on his ledger this season. He’s also responsible with the puck as he has 34 takeaways and 52 takeaways. He would certainly be more expensive than Dillon, with a cap hit of around $4 million, but it would arguably be an upgrade. Brodie has plenty of experience playing with top defensemen in Calgary with Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, and Noah Hanifin during his career so he could settle in with Carlson easier.
Edmundson also brings experience to the table, having played with Hamilton, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Jaccob Slavin, and he has a Stanley Cup under his belt from his tenure with St. Louis last season. After coming over to the Hurricanes in the Justin Faulk trade last September, the 26-year old has had a solid season, setting career-highs in goals (seven), assists (13), and points (20) and he has a +7 rating. While averaging 18:27 per game, including 2:48 on the penalty kill, Edmundson’s 118 hits rank second on the Hurricanes this season while his 91 blocks are tied with defenseman Brett Pesce for the same spot. His arrival could benefit Carlson because he would stay back, allowing Carlson to continue piling up points. Edmundson would likely cost around $4 million per season.
Now that we have reviewed a couple possible fits, how does Dillon stack up against them? He has never been an offensive producer, as his career-best season came in 2018-19 season where he notched just one goal, 22 points, and a +19 rating in 82 games. He has played deep in the season before, but so has Edmundson, who has won a Cup before. Dillon also had a -8 rating during the Sharks’ Stanley Cup Playoff run last season, the worst on the team, and a -10 rating in 62 career Stanley Cup Playoff games. His defensive numbers are pretty good but not as good as Brodie’s or Edmundson’s, as Dillon has 74 blocked shots, 194 hits, 16 takeaways, and 26 giveaways while averaging 19:27 per game, including 2:07 on the penalty kill. Dillon fit in well with Carlson but didn’t muster any points and posted a -2 rating in 10 games with the Capitals.
While Dillon has performed admirably since coming to the Capitals, there could be better options available after the season is over as Brodie and Edmundson seem like very enticing options. Offense is certainly not everything when looking at a defenseman’s profile, but both Brodie and Edmundson have proven they could play solid at both ends of the rink while Dillon is not as gifted offensively. Dillon would certainly be cheaper to re-sign but with Holtby almost certainly not coming back after this season, the Capitals could have some cash while staying smart given other big decisions coming up.
If the salary cap is anywhere close to this year’s level, the Capitals could free up some cash by trading someone, because it will be pivotal to sign at least one established NHL defenseman this offseason as the team’s average of 3.44 goals-against per game since December 23 is the third-worst in the NHL even though they have some exciting pieces back there.
By Harrison Brown