The Washington Capitals have been in the mix for the Stanley Cup for nearly a decade and a half, building the team around an existing group of core players. The team construction has typically involved acquiring players via trade or free agency, often utilizing draft capital in order to add NHL-ready pieces.
The positive side of the methodology is you get players you can be pretty sure are going to immediately contribute positive value to your roster. The negative with the approach, of course, is you’re often sacrificing your future (prospects) to get that value today.
Part of keeping a core that has won the Cup before means signing players to (sometimes) less-than-desirable contracts in hopes of keeping the magic going. The other piece, as mentioned previously, is signing free agents to plug holes in your lineup.
In this piece, I’ll rate the the Capitals current contracts. Contract information used in this post is courtesy of CapFriendly. Just to note, I won’t be rating entry-level contracts in this post since they inherently have good value.
Conor Sheary (LW/RW): 2 years x $1.5M AAV, 1 year remaining
Conor Sheary signed his deal after a very productive 2020-21 season and likely could have received more money on the open market in free agency. Sheary rewarded the Capitals in the 2021-22 season, posting 19 goals and 24 points in 71 games. The $1.5M annual average value is very palatable for a player who can play up and down the lineup.
Trevor van Riemsdyk (D): 2 years x $950k AAV, 1 year remaining
van Riemsdyk is a valuable commodity on the backend. It’ll be interesting to see how he plays without recently departed Justin Schultz and on the right side of the defense as a right-handed defenseman this season. He has proven to be a solid third pairing defenseman who can move up in a pinch. It’s very hard to complain about a sub-$1M contract for a player that plays every game.
Tom Wilson (RW): 6 years x $5,166,666 AAV, 2 years remaining
Players like Wilson are very rare in today’s NHL: a devastating mix of immense physicality, offensive prowess, and defensive capability. Wilson is one of the most imposing power forwards in the league. When his current contract is up, teams will be lining up around the block to try to sign Wilson if the Caps are unable to extend him. On top of his on-ice value, the fact that he’s cleaned up his game and taken suspensions relatively out of the mix only increases his value. The Caps will definitely miss him while he recovers from an ACL injury that he suffered in the first-round loss to the Florida Panthers.
Alex Ovechkin (LW): 5 years x $9.5M AAV, 4 years remaining
Ovechkin could have asked for nearly anything and owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Brian MacLellan would have given it to him. He’s been such an important part of the franchise and the DC area at large by galvanizing a fanbase that hadn’t had much to cheer about since 1998. He actually ended up taking a slight pay cut from his previous contract (13 years x $9.538M), and the Capitals ended up giving him a longer deal than most were expecting. The only way this would have ended up a great contract is if Ovechkin signed year to year at discounted rates to continue to chase Cups until he rides off into the sunset.
Evgeny Kuznetsov (C): 8 years x $7.8M AAV, 3 years remaining
If Kuznetsov plays every season like the 2021-22 season (or the 2018 playoffs), this contract will have great value for the next three seasons. If he has more seasons like he did in 2020-21 where trade rumors were circling him, the price tag is a bit more on the hefty side. Overall, though, paying your top line center under $8M is good value.
Connor Brown (LW/RW): 3 years x $3.6M, 1 year remaining
Here’s a contract that the Capitals didn’t offer, but instead acquired from the Ottawa Senators this offseason. The value is there with Brown showing that he’s one of the better “utility” players in the league. He skated the most minutes on the penalty kill last season and has a solid shot. The only way the value would have been better is if Brown was signed for longer term after this season.
Dylan Strome (C/LW): 1 year x $3.5M AAV, 1 year remaining
Strome was one of the restricted free agents that ended up being non-tendered by their original team (Chicago in Strome’s case). Chicago choosing not to tender Strome was one of the more head-scratching moves of the off-season, as Strome put up 22 goals and 26 assists in 69 games last season. The fact that the Capitals were able to get him on a “prove-it” deal at this value is immense, especially since Strome will be a restricted free agent after this contract expires after the season.
Garnet Hathaway (RW): 4 years x $1.5M AAV, 1 year remaining
Hathaway had a lot of defensive value for the Capitals last season as a part of that imposing fourth line. It will be interesting to see if the Caps can get him back in the fray after this season on a discount, since ideally, you’d want to pay fourth liners a bit less than $1.5M. Overall, his value defensively and the fact that he’s taken some of the fights from Tom Wilson’s docket make his current contract worth it.
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby (LW): 1 year x $750k AAV, 1 year remaining
You can never complain about a contract that is for the minimum amount for a player who can play on the penalty kill and the fourth line. It seems like AJF is best suited to replace Carl Hagelin’s spot on the fourth line beside Nic Dowd and Hathaway.
Dmitry Orlov (D): 6 years x $5.1M AAV, 1 year remaining
Orlov has been one of the Caps’ best defensemen for quite a while now. The value of his deal is solid, and the biggest question surrounding Orlov will be if the Capitals will extend him or let him walk in free agency. Orlov had one of the best offensive years of his career last season, posting 12 goals and 23 assists in 76 games.
Nick Jensen (D) 4 years x $2.5M AAV, 1 year remaining
If you had asked me the value of this contract prior to the last season and a half, I’d say this contract was negative value. Jensen had a great season last year, outside of the playoffs where nearly all of the Capitals’ defensemen struggled. If Jensen can have a repeat performance of last season, the value of this contract (and likely Jensen’s next contract) will get even higher.
Matt Irwin (D) 1 year x $750k AAV, 1 year remaining
Irwin is a great option as the team’s seventh defenseman. He can step in and perform at a solid level when called upon due to injury. His overall contract is very low risk considering it’s the minimum compensation rate.
Darcy Kuemper (G) 5 years x $5.25M AAV, 5 years remaining
Kuemper was the best goaltender in free agency this summer and had a chance to really cash in after winning the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. The Capitals ended up signing Kuemper for a pretty fair average annual value and as a result, patched their biggest weakness on their roster from last season. The term is a bit long for Kuemper at 32 years old, but by the last couple years of his deal, the Capitals will likely be in a rebuild.
Charlie Lindgren (G) 3 years x $1.1M AAV, 3 years remaining
The Capitals went out and cleaned house in net, signing both Kuemper and Lindgren in free agency. As a result, the Capitals have ensured that they have NHL level goaltenders signed to a palatable combined AAV for the next three seasons. The Capitals are likely paying less combined money to Lindgren and Kuemper than they would have paid to Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek if both of them would have stayed with the team.
TJ Oshie (RW) 8 years x $5.75M AAV, 3 years remaining
Oshie is still currently productive, but the term on the eight year deal he was given was a bit too long considering his age. Arguably, the last year of his deal, you could say the Capitals will still be in a rebuild. The question is, can Oshie stay healthy and productive through the remainder of his contract?
Anthony Mantha (RW) 4 years x $5.7M AAV, 2 years remaining
Mantha’s price tag isn’t problematic, but he hasn’t quite hit that high-end tier of offensive production quite yet. He has shown flashes but has lacked overall consistency. Part of the problem for Mantha was missing considerable time last season due to a shoulder injury. The value of this contract could skyrocket if Mantha steps in and performs at a high level with Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup for extended periods of time.
Lars Eller (C) 5 years x $3.5M AAV, 1 year remaining
Eller’s contract was great value for the first half of the term. He was among the league’s best third line centers and was instrumental for the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory, scoring the Cup clinching goal in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights. The last couple seasons have shown Eller has been regressing and isn’t quite worth the $3.5M price tag for his services. If Backstrom were healthy, it would have been likely that the Capitals would have moved on from Eller this summer.
Nic Dowd (C) 3 years x $1.3M AAV, 3 years remaining
Dowd is a solid fourth line center and capable penalty killer, but his Goals Above Replacement (GAR) value has been right around replacement level. The Capitals could likely find a cheaper and younger option at fourth line center, but you can’t always put a price tag on line chemistry. Peter Laviolette also appears to be really fond of Dowd’s play.
Marcus Johansson (LW/C/RW) 1 year x $1.1M AAV, 1 year remaining
This contract at $1.1M is rather inconsequential. Johansson will be a good depth utility option and is one of the best puck carriers on the team. The power play, especially the second unit, can take advantage of that skill set.
Erik Gustafsson (D) 1 year x $800k AAV, 1 year remaining
It’s hard to complain about a sub-$1M AAV contract, but the Capitals likely have better options defensively in prospects Alex Alexeyev (when he’s healthy) and Lucas Johansen. Gustafsson had one very good offensive season in Chicago during the 2018-19 season, posting 17 goals and 43 assists in 79 games. If he looks like that version of himself, this contract has great value. The problem is, he hasn’t looked very effective since then.
John Carlson (D) 8 years x $8M AAV, 4 years remaining
The term on this deal was just too long for Carlson, but it was the cost to keep him in DC following the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup in 2018. Effectively all of Carlson’s value is due to his offensive prowess, but it’s clear that Carlson isn’t really the two-way elite defenseman that his price tag warrants.
Nicklas Backstrom (C) 5 years x $9.2M AAV, 3 years remaining
Backstrom has been an extremely important and productive player throughout his storied career as a Capital. The problem is that this contract as a whole is a bit tough to swallow for a player that had been struggling with debilitating hip injuries for multiple seasons and was showing signs of slowing down. If the procedure to repair Backstrom’s hip helps him get back to being the healthy, elite playmaker that he’s been historically, then the value on this contract skyrockets.
Carl Hagelin (LW) 4 years x $2.75M AAV, 1 year remaining
This contract was always an overpay. The Capitals’ penalty kill was outright terrible prior to Hagelin’s arrival at the trade deadline in 2018-19 but bringing him back at this price point was tough. Paying a player nearly $3M to play on your fourth line and play on the penalty kill is not ideal at all, especially since Hagelin adds nearly zero offensive production to the lineup in a league where a lot of the best teams have four lines that can score goals.
The Capitals don’t have many bad contracts, but they’re definitely high price points that will affect the ability to upgrade the roster and plug holes during the season and at the trade deadline. The other piece is, when you have a long-time core of veteran players, contracts are almost always going to be bloated. The Capitals have still managed to put together a team that contend for the playoffs, at least for the next few seasons.
By Justin Trudel