The Capitals are entering a bit of uncharted waters during the Ovechkin Era this off-season, as Capitals general manager Brian Maclellan will look to make the team younger but more competitive, all under the overarching plan of chasing down another Stanley Cup during the twilight of Alex Ovechkin’s legendary career.
The Capitals have five pending unrestricted free agents on the roster this season: Craig Smith, Conor Sheary, Connor Brown, Carl Hagelin, and Matt Irwin. Here’s a glimpse of those pending UFAs:
With the roster headed towards an overturn with the goal of retooling the roster around the aging core, there’s not going to be a lot of room for veteran players, especially with General Manager Brian MacLellan floating the goal of acquiring another top six skill player on the younger side. With that, we’re going to take a look at the Capitals’ five pending UFAs and make a call on what the Caps should do with them at season’s end.
To note: we won’t be covering Hagelin in this post. He hasn’t played at all this season due to an eye injury he suffered in practice last season, and he also just had hip resurfacing surgery. We likely have seen the last of Hagelin in a Caps uniform, and maybe the last time we’ll see him in the NHL at all.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, and HockeyViz. Salary cap information is courtesy of CapFriendly. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
When Smith was included as a return player in the Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway trade to Boston, it felt like Smith was a throw-in to account for a roster spot and some more cap flexibility for the Bruins. Alternatively, Smith has gotten a fair bit of playing time on the Caps, and has looked rather decent in his appearances.
Here’s Smith’s on-ice performance metrics during five-on-five play:
To note: these are Smith’s statistics from his stint with the Caps. Smith’s performance during five-on-five play has been rather commendable, especially in the key metrics we use to measure on-ice impact.
Smith is on the ice for the majority of Corsi shot attempts (CF%), Fenwick shot attempts (FF%), shots on goal (SF%), goals for (GF%), expected goals for (xGF%), and high-danger chances (HDCF%). For a so-called “throw-in” player, Smith has really shined in Washington in his short stint with the Caps.
Here’s Smith’s goals above replacement (GAR) marks this season:
Overall this season, when incorporating his value from the Bruins and the Capitals, Smith has been a sub-replacement level player. That’s not too surprising considering he’s 33 and on the back-nine of his career.
That being said, Smith’s GAR performance in Washington is actually fairly solid: he’s put up 1.5 offensive GAR (oGAR), 0.1 defensive GAR (dGAR), and a total 1.5 GAR value. That’s a far shot from his performance in Boston: -1 oGAR, -0.7 dGAR, -2.2 total GAR.
Here’s Smith’s isolated impact while on the ice for the Caps:
Smith has shown great effectiveness in the offensive and defensive zones during even strength through 14 games with the Capitals. He hasn’t gotten a lot of run on special teams, so we can disregard his impact there on the graphic above. Overall, Smith has been a solid fit in the middle-six forward group for the Capitals to round out this overall disappointing season.
In any other scenario than the one the Caps will find themselves this off-season, Smith might be a solid retention option for forward depth. The fact that he’s 33 probably ages him out of the Capitals’ plans for their roster construction.
If Smith were willing to come back on a league minimum salary to serve as the 13th forward, that would be ideal. He could slot into a spot up and down the lineup in case of injuries, but with the Caps’ goal of getting younger, Smith is pretty much outside the desired age group.
Sheary has had a bit of a career resurgence in Washington following his prove-it deal with the Caps in the 2020-21 season. The two-year extension he signed during that 2020-21 season has kept a solid offensive forward in town for an affordable cost, especially since he saw plenty of time on the top line with Ovechkin this season.
Here’s Sheary’s on-ice performance during five-on-five play this season:
Sheary’s possession numbers aren’t the strongest in the world, but he thrives in generating scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances. With that, his expected goals for percentage is solid.
The best part about the metrics above is that his goals for percentage exceeds his expected goals for percentage, meaning that the Caps’ finishing rate is healthy while Sheary is on the ice. Part of that is playing with Ovechkin though, and he really seems to drop off in effectiveness when he’s away from Ovechkin in the lineup.
Here’s Sheary’s GAR performance:
As reflected above, Sheary is an effective, offensively focused forward for the Caps. He’s not a complete liability defensively, but does fall below the replacement level in that regard. Overall, the actual value the Caps have gotten out of Sheary at a rather meager price point is really desirable.
Here’s Sheary’s on-ice isolated impact:
Realistically, Sheary hasn’t had a ton of impact on the ice here when looking at his performance in relation to the Caps’ overall performance. He moves the needle a tiny bit offensively during even strength, doesn’t move the needle at all defensively at even strength, and is actually a negative impact on the power play.
I was surprised that Sheary wasn’t dealt at the trade deadline this season. I had figured that a contending team wouldn’t mind adding a skilled middle-six forward to their roster in hopes of taking their team over the edge for playoff success. Part of me wonders if the Caps held onto him to see if they could extend him, but as we’re moving closer and closer to the end of the season, perhaps the Caps couldn’t find a suitable deal for him at the deadline.
Sheary’s time in the top-six has fallen a bit, getting more deployments on the fourth line with Nic Dowd than on the top line with Ovechkin. The Caps could choose to keep him around, but at 30, Sheary might chase a longer term deal with a bit higher of a cap hit than the Caps would be willing to offer.
Entering this season, Irwin was pretty much the prototypical veteran seventh defenseman. He had solid performances last season, but was used much more sparingly than he was last season. With more and more ice time and deployments this season due to injuries, Irwin’s age showed. On top of that, he took a lot of ice time away from developing Alexander Alexeyev. Obviously, that’s not his fault, but more of a fault in the lack of talent development of young players from the coaching staff.
Here’s Irwin’s on-ice performance during five-on-five play:
There’s not really much to admire here. He’s at least on the positive side of SF%, but everything else trails below the 50% watermark. His GF% is putrid, especially since he’s more of a defensive defenseman than anything. There’s not really any redeeming factors here, and it’s kind of dumbfounding that Irwin got so much playing time this season with Alexeyev in the press box.
Here’s Irwin’s GAR performance:
Irwin is an absolute black hole offensively. He has the 13th worst oGAR in the NHL this season. He’s rather solid defensively, which is to be expected since that fits his play style a bit more, but his on-ice total GAR value slots him as solidly as a below replacement level player.
Here’s Irwin’s isolated impact:
Yeah, not good. There’s not much to say here other than the Caps are pretty much worse in every regard when Irwin is on the ice.
Thanks for your efforts, Matt, but your services are no longer needed in Washington. The Caps can easily replace Irwin with a similar price point.
What could have this season been if the Caps had Brown healthy all season? Perhaps a bit better, but maybe not. Overall, the Caps only had four games with Brown in the lineup after spending a second round pick to acquire him from Ottawa this off-season.
I was a fan of the move, and thought that Brown could add a bit of depth scoring from the right side of the ice. That’s where the Caps have suffered the most, especially with the idea of acquiring Brown being that he could hold down a spot in the top-six while Tom Wilson was recovering from his ACL injury.
Here’s Brown’s on-ice performance during five-on-five play in four games this season:
Due to a low sample size, these statistics can be a bit volatile. We see good trends in CF% and FF%, but you can really see that volatility in his GF% and HDCF%. I’m pretty comfortable in saying that those two metrics wouldn’t have stayed this low if Brown played more games.
I didn’t feel like Brown’s GAR performance through four games was stable enough to include here. The small sample size has a large impact on GAR values and can lead to statistically insignificant results having huge impacts on their overall values.
Here’s Brown’s isolated impact:
Again, small sample size, but he had positive impact, offensively. Defensively was on the other end of the spectrum, but it was only four games worth of data. There’s not much to go on here in terms of what we can expect from Brown, especially after an ACL injury.
I would be a fan of bringing Brown back on a cheap prove-it deal. He could be a great contributor on the third line, and if it didn’t pan out, the Caps aren’t looking down the barrel of an expensive long-term contract.
By Justin Trudel
Brown can return on the right contract but none of the others should be considered!
Conor Sheary scores a lot of goals for $1.5 million salary.
He won’t be worth that anymore, and he’s too old. Management would have to answer a lot of questions about resigning an old player while trying to become younger and faster
The man has 34 points, on a value contract. He’ll likely get a raise from some team. I think Milano was extended because they wanted a similar player for similar money, and is also younger.
Brown, Sheary and Smith on the right contract. Hagelin gets to walk never to return in a Caps uniform. Irwin is interesting in that he costs little and can sit for long periods, so unless there is a rookie who can be plugged into the 7th D slot its all his as long as the contract is about the same. These question and many others will be answered better when a HC is signed.
It’ll be interesting to see the route that MacLellan takes here. I could really see Brown being back on a one year prove-it deal. The others are probably gone, just because they don’t fit the theme of “going younger”. At the end of the day, there’s only so many spots and we know one of those spots is being held for a top six skilled player to be acquired.
I agree on the one year deal for Brown and depending on how management views him if he is doing well next year he could be a possible trade piece. For me Sheary, Milano and NAK are almost the same type of player and dont need all 3 although if the price is right you might want to keep Sheary on a 1 year deal. As for Smith, Sheary and Brown, I think several questions have to be asked and answered first: 1) does Kuzy get traded if so then Smith fits in his slot; 2) Does Backy retire, if so Smith fits in there; 3) Is CMM finally ready to fill a fulltime role, if so no need for Smith at all and if he is I would like to see him as a C and move Backy to wing; 4) Let all 3 go and play Protas as a starter and bring up CMM and let him play or maybe Frank and Mantha is on the bench!! Finally there is only so much “getting younger” that this team can do by keeping Oshie, Kuzy, Backy, Wilson and Dowd.
Whoa, okay, I am okay, almost died laughing when I read Druid said if they unload Kuzy that Smith “fits in there”….difficult to take anything he “says” seriously.
Never asked your opinion, dont care about it especially since you advertise what you do…..toot your own horn! Now back to the closet with you and remember to shut the door!
That’s a little rough, but I agree. Smith does not fit in as a replacement for any of the centers.
For #1: Kuznetsov could definitely be traded, but I think the landing spots for him are pretty thin. The problem with trading Kuznetsov is you’re never going to get fair value for him because he can be absolutely elite when he’s on, but teams are going to be wary of spending a lot on acquiring him because he can be so inconsistent. To me, it’d be much more likely that McMichael fits into the 3C role than Smith playing center full time. Smith hasn’t taken many face-offs since the 2015-16 season, so he hasn’t been playing center a lot since then.
For #2: I would put the odds of Backstrom retiring this off-season at 0.000001%. He’s owed a lot of money on the remainder of his contract, and he doesn’t put forth the rehab effort he did this past year to hang up the skates after half a season.
For #3: I’m not sure if McMichael is ready for a full time role. He’s having a good year in Hershey, but it really depends on the next coach.
For #4: I think Protas holds down a bottom six role next season. I’d be pretty surprised if Mantha was on the roster opening night.
It’s not that you can’t get fair value for Kuzy, it’s the fact that he’s over paid. He’s not worth the money the caps have him. There are some pretty bad contracts on that team. Players that didn’t live up to their contract.
And correct, Mantha gotta go. Oshie not top six. He’s horrible moving the puck. Backstrom, one of my favorites but not top six anymore. Too slow.
The main problem with the Caps is that they tried to keep the band together to long and salaries went up thus creating the cap problems that they have today and the number of players who are overpaid for what they can do now.
I do not believe that you would get fair value for Kuzy even if he was pad less due to his being an inconsistent player and a head case. there are a lot of bad contracts on this team (Kuzy, Oshie, Carlson, Backy, Mantha) and wondering if we add another one to that list next year in Wilson?
If the Caps trade Kuzy will it be a trade where they get back a huge contrace and a aging player or can they obtain picks (which are what are needed to rebuild this team)?
I don’t think we need any of them. If the Kuz rumors turn out to be the usual Russian disinformation, then I see next year’s team like this:
So there’s from 1 to 4 positions open, not counting any major free agent signings. I believe we’d have about $5M to spend, if I’m reading Cap Friendly correctly, and assuming a $1M cap rise
My guess is that Oshie probably slots into the third line RW role. He’s getting up there in terms of mileage and can add a bit more depth down the lineup with his scoring. I would also venture to guess that one of Lapierre or McMichael will be used in a trade to get another younger top six scorer to slot into the top six.
I’m not sure about Mantha. I don’t think he’s as bad as he’s been playing this season, but he also carries a high cap hit for pretty meager results. With the salary cap only going up around a million bucks next season, cap space is at a premium. I could see a package of Mantha, McMichael/Lapierre, and picks to a team like the Coyotes for a player like Nick Schmaltz.
Yup, I’m not betting that those will be the lines on opening night in October, that’s just a guesstimate. For one thing, we don’t quite know who will be the head coach. Your results may vary.
Absolutely, but I think your lines are pretty dang close to what we could see next fall.
Totally agree Justin on Mantha to Coyotes. I hope the Caps can get away with him and picks to get a player like Schmaltz, but you may be right that it takes CMM. I think another year for CMM (or half a year there) would be huge for him. But I think you are right that to get a player like Schmaltz it will take a prospect. Justin, would you rather give up CMM or Frank if the other team is open to either???
In my eyes, Frank has been really good in Hershey, but he’s also 25. McMichael is 22 and a former first round pick. If the Coyotes (or another team) valued them equally, I’d almost certainly send Frank the other way instead of McMichael.
I do think that unloading Mantha and trying to get a valuable player with term like Schmaltz would probably require either McMichael or Lapierre plus picks.
Agree about Frank. Yes, he’s played really well in Hershey and has improved in his total game. But many forget that when the year started he was originally targeted for the ECHL. He got an opportunity and made the most of it. He should get a look in a few NHL games next year to see how he handles it but I don’t think any team is going to go after him as a prime target when making a trade.
Looking beyond the ice, does the player play a role in the locker room? A lot of older players are looking into next careers. Are these interested in coaching? Would they be good mentors for young players? Do they have off-ice intangibles that would tip them over into the plus column despite age? We don’t need a team of all rookies.
Hockey is a business. How are the players viewed by the fans? Do they sell merchandise?
As an example of both points, to me, Osh’s value off the ice is as great as his value on the ice. He is the heart of the team. He is loved by the fans. There is value in that.
But when you get into these intangibles, they don’t garner the high salaries that on ice performance demands. Are any of these players willing to recognize that? Are they willing to take less from the Caps? Is there any loyalty to the Caps? I really thought Palat would stay with the Bolts but when the Devils offered him more, he bolted (pun intended).
So to me the choice isn’t always offer or not offer but how much to offer. But the offer looks at more than just on ice stats.
That’s a fair point. On the other hand, the Caps have plenty of veterans in their core group that can serve that role, and they’re the ones that sell the merch and the tickets.
At the end of the day, the players view hockey as a business too. There’s only a few guys around the league that would be willing to take immense pay cuts to stay with a team when they could get more elsewhere. The biggest example of this to me is Mark Giordano with the Maple Leafs where he re-signed for basically nothing after being a couple years removed from a Norris Trophy with the Flames.
Yes, I don’t believe any on this list would qualify on the off-ice intangibles but don’t know how the other players view them. Redskins’ Darrell Green to me is the poster boy for intangibles.
Florida (Bolts and Panthers) have no income tax, so other clubs complain that they have an unfair advantage in salaries to start with. And according to many some pretty good living and family advantages. So while I don’t expect players to turn down an immense pay raise, I thought Palat’s happiness with the team and the team with him might join with the others to balance out. It didn’t.
The biggest pay cut I can remember is Peyton Manning taking a $4 million pay cut with the Broncos.
Texas is another state without income tax. Dallas has done a nice job luring some very useful free agents there over the last few years, like Pavelski, Colin Miller and Ryan Suter, though Suter is still getting paid a king’s ransom by Minnesota. I’m surprised Nashville hasn’t done better with FAs, since Tennessee doesn’t have an income tax either, but maybe that’s due to penny pinching ownership, and a generally poor direction by David Poile.
Good point about Tennessee Kim, also Vegas with no income tax in Nevada and they have definitely taken advantage. As someone that lives in such a state, TX, it is great benefit. Property tax can be chosen, not so much for income tax unless you have a lot of job flexibility.
Anyway, I do think as we talk about how old the Caps are and getting younger…let’s not forget that our likely 2 leading goal scorers are over 35, especially when looked at as goals per game. Many of our fans talk about the Caps older players as if they should be discarded, but without those two the Caps would be in a lot of trouble.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last two NHL expansion teams, Seattle and Vegas, are both in states that don’t have income tax. And if the NHL expands again, I’ll bet a sizeable amount that it’s to Houston. Hey, ten bucks is ten bucks (H/T Geddy Lee)
I don’t think anyone has advocated trading Ovechkin. Personally, I’m in favor of seeing what Ethen Frank has got. He had a tremendous rookie season in Hershey. And we should have money to get a mid-tier FA. I don’t really wanna give up assets like prospects and/or picks.
I would advocate for more of a difference maker in a trade that can help this team make the playoffs (and hopefully further than the first round) in a perfect world. The mid-tier FA players are just that: mid-tier. The Caps are missing a complementary scorer in their top six, and that diminishes their finishing ability.
I think Frank might get a shot, but I’m not sure if there’s a spot open for him if the team acquires a top six scorer. He’d probably be one of the first players called up in case of injuries though.
I’d say we disagree there. Is giving up assets to gain a finisher really worth it, when the bulk of the team is aging, and past its prime years? If you pull off a heist like the Sandin deal, getting a young player with his prime years ahead of him, while giving up not much of value, then you probably go for it. Giving up young centers is probably not a good idea. Remember Chandler Stephenson.
I think it’s worth it if you get a player in their mid-20s with term or player control remaining. The front office promised Ovi that we’d be competitive through the end of his current deal, and this is probably the way to do it. Unless there’s another Dylan Strome out there in free agency, the way to get a solid scorer is through trades.
I do think your point about the Caps’ two best goal scorers being on the older side is true, but it’s also a key point into why the Capitals have struggled this season. You can have an older core group, but you also have to have a younger group of players that can supplement that older core.
I think the best example of this is in Tampa: they have their current core of Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy, but also have their “next” core in Cirelli, Cernak, Point, and Sergachev. On one hand, obviously not having state income tax helps you keep your stars for cheaper, but on the other hand, they’ve drafted very well and have made some shrewd trades for impactful players.
I agree with all of these. I just hope the Caps can find another 15-20 goal scorer for a million and a half.
Your opening statement (“The Capitals are entering a bit of uncharted waters…look[ing] to make the team younger but more competitive, all under the overarching plan of chasing down another Stanley Cup during the twilight of Alex Ovechkin’s legendary career.”) isn’t quite correct, as other teams have had to negotiate these waters as well. I’m thinking primarily of Chicago, the Kings, the Penguins and the Bruins, the four other teams that have dominated post-2010, all centered around a now-aging core (Toews and Kane, Kopitar and Doughty, Crosby and Malkin, and Bergeron and Marchand). Some (the Bruins) seem to have done this very well, others (Chicago) umm, not so much. I’m wondering if an in-depth dive into how each of these teams managed their way through these waters might prove illuminating as to how the Caps might do it. Okay, to be honest I’m too lazy to think through all this myself, so I’m hoping someone at NovaCaps might do it. 🙂
It helps when you draft Pastrnak, when 24 other teams had passed on him, including the Caps. Good drafting is always the key to winning. I believe every team that has won the Cup post salary cap has had a Top Ten draft choice on their roster.
But once you draft them, you have to develop them, nurture them, bring them up through your organization, make room in your NHL roster and then actually play them. Trading them away or leaving them stuck in the AHL, press box, or bench doesn’t work.
I have a new battle cry: “Don’t Stephenson McMichael!”
There’s been a few trades that have hurt during the MacLellan era. The Siegenthaler trade probably hurts the most to me. I don’t think anyone would have imagined that Stephenson would be the top points earner on a Vegas team that’s really dominant right now. Decent middle six option, sure, but top line center and point scorer? I’m not sure that was on anyone’s expectation list for him.
Thanks for reading, Dave. I meant specifically for the Capitals, who haven’t really retooled during the competitive window of the Ovechkin Era.
I haven’t dived into what each team did to make them successful in supporting an aging core, but my hypothesis is that they drafted extremely well (even Chicago, but they decided to trade DeBrincat and Dach for some unknown reason) and had some shrewd trades and signings. The Kings had a bit more of a rebuild than anything, with Kopitar and Doughty still being key players for them, but you could definitely argue that Kevin Fiala is probably the core piece there now.
I understand your point being specifically about the Caps but what occurred to me was that the Caps situation is a specific variation of a general problem a number of teams have had. From about 2010 or so, a series of teams pretty much dominated the league, built around superstar players. It now being 13 years later, each of these teams has had to negotiate how to deal with an aging but still productive core while still trying to be competitive. I’m sure each team had some specific challenges (such as the cap crunch in Chicago) but my thought was that a deep dive into the choices and moves each team made might be illuminating. (And yes I’m still trying to get you to do my work for me!)
Pretty simple, Caps top six aren’t as good as other top teams top six. Kuzy gotta go, Oshie can’t control the puck gotta go. Plus other players that remain on the top six that are pass their prime and no longer top six. When the forwards consistently turn the puck over in the nuetral zone the D men end up taking the brunt of the play and criticism.
I think it’s very amusing that Smith has been declared impressive with his 2 goals against Anaheim and 0 assist since he got here. Sheary is the only one that should even be consisdered to be brought back and that’s for 3rd or 4th line duty
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I’m not trying to offend anyone here. I’m imagining that you are all – or mostly all millennials. As such, you probably are without the experience and appreciation of the work ethic of previous generations that was based on the expectation that a worker would be faithful (and appreciative) toward his employer and his employer would be the same. The norm was for a worker to spend his entire career with an employer, there were raises, pensions and holiday bonuses and both parties valued each other. The relationship had value – most workers were not constantly looking to move. This was even true in professional sports.
I know that paradigm is obsolete. I know that today many employer/employee relations are along the lines of “get as much as you can for of as long as you can get it and then look to move on”.
My hope is that Nick Backstrom is not of that cloth. My hope is that he realizes that his company (Caps and fans thereof) have valued and loved him- cared for him, invested in him, shared in his success and frustration. And they have compensated him to the tune of $94 MIL over the past 10 years. Under today’s paradigm, you could say he could have gotten more somewhere else (maybe) and what you all are saying, “he’s owed that money – he’d never leave it on the table”.
My hope is that Nick Backstrom appreciates that his contract is an anchor to his company (team and fans) and that he appreciates and feels an obligation to NOT be that anchor. I know in today’s sports world $94M isn’t anything out of the ordinary – but he certainly is a rich man at a young and now healthy age. He’s got more money than he and his family will ever need.
Yes, this is naive of me – but I think it’s possible that Nick is more of a hero than any of us imagine.
For the record, I’m not a millennial. 1964 birthdate, so I fall neatly between Boomer and Gen X-er, neither one or the other.
1964 here also….Caps fan not since day 1, but pretty close, late 70’s, Guy Charon and that group…
Well, I was at the opening of Walt Disney World so I’m not a millennial. But I agree, I was seeing a lack of mutual obligation between management and employees before my first retirement. However, some still believe in working together for the greater good. From today’s news: ‘Blue Bloods’ Cast Reportedly Takes 25 Percent Pay Cut to Secure Season 14 Renewal