Which Defensemen Could The Capitals Target In Free Agency?

Photo: Buffalo Sabres

On Monday the Capitals traded rugged, veteran defenseman Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets for a 2022 second round pick and a 2023 second round pick, leaving an opening on the left side of the defensive corps that the Capitals will need to address.

There’s significant complexity with the Capitals’ current defensive roster makeup and the remaining money required to stay under the salary cap ceiling. Michal Kempny is slated to return to the active roster after missing all of the 2021 season due to an Achilles tear. In addition, General Manager Brian MacLellan has stated he would like to see defenseman Martin Fehérváry crack the everyday lineup.

After the Capitals announced they re-signed Alex Ovechkin to a five year, $9.5 million annual average value contract, the Capitals currently have $4,135,407 in projected cap space (via CapFriendly). A good portion of that remaining money will be consumed by re-signing goaltender Ilya Samsonov. On top of that, the Capitals will need to either bring in a veteran backup goaltender, or call up Pheonix Copley or Zack Fucale.

If the Caps call up Copley to the active roster, that leaves the Caps with $3,035,407 in cap space to sign Samsonov, as well as bring up extra skaters during the regular season. Unless the Capitals move other contracts on their active roster, the cap scenario is still rather precarious. This ultimately means that if the Caps indeed look to add a left handed defenseman in free agency, it’s going to have to be a bargain.

In this piece, we’ll take a look at some potential options for the Caps to target in free agency. Contract projections and Goals Above Replacement (GAR) figures are courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.

Inexpensive Options

Jordie Benn

The 33-year-old defenseman (and brother of Dallas star Jamie Benn) is coming off of a solid season with the Vancouver Canucks and the Winnipeg Jets. Benn had a solid GAR of 6.5 over the course of the 2021 season. Benn put up a goal and nine assists in 39 games last season, skating an average of 14:45 minutes per game between Vancouver and Winnipeg. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

Ultimately, he’s not going to add much offensively, but is an extremely solid penalty killer. He certainly doesn’t fit into the top four on the Caps’ blue line, but could be an asset as a sixth or seventh defenseman at the right price.

Contract Projection: 1 year, $750,000 cap hit

Jake McCabe

McCabe is coming off an injury shortened 2021 season after tearing his ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his knee. In 13 games with the Buffalo Sabres, he had a goal and two assists. McCabe put up a very respectable 5.5 GAR in those 13 games, with strong showings in even-strength defense. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

McCabe has been a solid defenseman over the past three seasons, and could be had at a relative bargain due to his injury. He’s really strong at even-strength defense, decent on the penalty kill, and doesn’t take penalties at a high rate. He could fit in the Capitals top four, or be a strong third pairing, shutdown defenseman.

Contract Projection: 1 year, $1,027,000 cap hit

Jon Merrill

The 29-year-old Merrill split last season between Detroit and Montreal, putting up five assists in 49 games. He averaged 18:15 in time on ice across his two stops. After struggling with possession numbers in Detroit (42.6 Corsi For percentage), he saw his possession numbers rise in Montreal (49.1 Corsi For percentage). Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

Overall, the only real value that Merrill contributes is even strength defense. He could be a really solid third pairing shutdown defenseman for the right price.

Contract Projection: 1 year, $1,128,000 cap hit

Ian Cole

Cole is a physical, veteran defenseman coming off a 2021 season where he was traded from the Colorado Avalanche to the Minnesota Wild. Cole put up a goal and seven assists in 54 total games last season. He struggles in possession metrics, putting up a 39.4 Corsi For percentage in Minnesota last season. Overall, he’s not going to add much other than a physical presence in a depth role. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

Cole’s defensive value really dropped from the levels seen in 2018-19 and 2019-20. He’d be a solid option as a sixth or seventh defenseman, but shouldn’t be leaned on as a major contributor on the Caps’ back-end.

Contract Projection: 1 year, $1,152,000 cap hit

Jordan Oesterle

Oesterle is coming off a three season stint in Arizona, skating in 43 games in 2021 with the Coyotes. He averaged 17:54 in ice time last season, and produced a goal and ten assists. Oesterle isn’t exactly strong in any particular area, but could be a good depth option. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

In particular, Oesterle doesn’t take too many penalties relative to his ice time, but hasn’t been decent defensively at even strength for a couple of seasons. He’s seen his value regress over the past three seasons, which isn’t a strong sign for a 28-year-old defenseman. He could be worthwhile if the Caps like what they see on the ice, but he’d likely be a seventh defenseman on the Caps.

Contract Projections: 1 year, $1,119,000 cap hit

Zdeno Chara

Here’s a familiar name for Caps fans. If Chara does not retire, there’s a chance he could reunite with the Capitals for one more season. The 44-year-old defenseman was still effective in even strength defense, and helped mentor Nick Jensen achieve his best season as a Capital.

The veteran put up two goals and eight assists in 55 games. Chara put up decent possession numbers (49.7 Corsi For percentage) last season as a third pairing defenseman. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

Overall, Chara shows an aptitude in even strength defense, finishing, and penalties taken versus drawn. Chara’s offense is not what it used to be, but the threat of his heavy slap shot is still there. The Caps could bring him back to hold down the third pairing once more.

Contract Projection: 1 year, $1,249,000

More Expensive Options

Alex Goligoski

Goligoski is coming off a season where he averaged 22:39 in time on ice, and put up a respectable three goals and 19 assists in 56 games played. Goligoski is turning 36 this summer, and could either cash in for a solid contract, or take a contract with a lower average annual value with a contender.

Goligoski’s possession numbers are decent, with 48.4 Corsi For percentage on an offensively challenged Arizona team. Historically, Goligoski is a strong possession player, with a career 50.4 Corsi For percentage. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

Goligoski performed at his typical levels over the past three seasons in even-strength defense, but played against an extremely high quality of competition. Goligoski doesn’t take a lot of penalties (14 penalty minutes in 56 games). He’s not great on the penalty kill.

Contract Projection: 3 years, $4,865,000 cap hit or 1 year, $2,438,000 cap hit.

Mike Reilly

Reilly is a strong puck-moving defenseman who can contribute offensively. He put up 27 assists in 55 games played in Ottawa and Boston last season. Eight of those 27 assists were scored with Boston in 15 games. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

Reilly’s even-strength offense was in the top tier of the league over the last three seasons, which is exemplified by his primary assist per sixty minutes percentile ranking. Additionally, Reilly’s defensive capabilities have been on the rise since 2018-19. Reilly will likely cash in to a top four role this off-season.

Contract Projection: 3 years, $3,795,000 cap hit

Ryan Suter

Suter was bought out earlier this summer by the Minnesota Wild, largely due to the remaining term and cap hit on his contract and the no movement clause’s implication on the Wild’s protection list for the expansion draft. Although Suter is 36, he is still a top four defenseman in the NHL. He will have a good amount of suitors in free agency, and may get more term than the Caps are willing to give. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

Suter has been better offensively than defensively over the past three seasons at even strength. His even strength defensive percentile is a bit low, but that’s also because he plays against high quality of competition. Suter could still get some solid offers from teams with cap space, looking for a veteran defender to push them over the hump.

Contract Projection: 3 years, $5,578,000

Brandon Montour

The 27-year-old, right handed defenseman is coming off a solid showing in Florida after being traded by the Buffalo Sabres. After really struggling with possession metrics in Buffalo (46.8 Corsi For percentage), he went to elite levels of possession metrics with Florida (59.5 Corsi For percentage). Over 50 games last season, he put up seven goals and eleven assists. Here’s his Wins Above Replacement percentile rating and player card, via JFreshHockey:

Montour’s 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons were quite underwhelming, but he was also playing for the always struggling Buffalo Sabres. In 2017-18, Montour put up 6.5 GAR, with 4.1 even-strength offensive GAR and 0.8 defensive GAR. Montour certainly has more of an offensive side to his game, which adds some value. Montour’s even strength offense took a major swing upward last season, mostly due to moving from the depths of Buffalo to the contending Panthers at the trade deadline last season. Montour is a solid player, but could be out of the Capitals’ price range unless more money is moved around prior to free agency.

Contract Projection: 5 years, $5,452,000 cap hit or 3 years, $4,171,000 cap hit

Summary

Realistically, the Capitals are going to struggle signing high-quality free agents this summer, unless more trades are made to move money. In the world of the flat salary cap, teams are generally unwilling to take on salary without something added as a sweetener (like a pick or prospect, or both).

Will the Capitals take a gamble on Kempny and Fehérváry to round out the left side of the defense with Dmitry Orlov? Or will they find an asset in free agency? We’ll find out soon.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager at a non-profit in Jacksonville, FL. Justin enjoys geeking out over roster construction and cap management.
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