An important piece to supplementing the talent on your roster is the addition of players via free agency. While it’s not ideal to fully round out your roster by utilizing free agency, it’s an important factor for finding the last couple of puzzle pieces in order to transform your roster from a mediocre team to a playoff-caliber team.
July 1st marks the opening day of the unrestricted free agent market when signings can be announced. There’s been some good signings in the past across the league, and there’s been some pretty terrible ones that hamper the team’s roster and cap situation for years to come. It’s a risky play to sign big ticket free agents because they typically cost more than you’d like to pay, and for longer term than you’d like to see.
In this post we’re going to take a look at the top eight unrestricted free agent forwards under 35 years old. In this case, we’re using points scored as the means for ranking these players, but you’ll soon see that points scored doesn’t always mean that they’re the right player to sign. For each player, we’ll take a look at key metrics, and determine if they are a good fit for the Capitals’ top-six forward group.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference. The salary cap information for current contracts is courtesy of CapFriendly and PuckPedia. The new contract projections for these players are also via Evolving Hockey. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
Killorn is a 33-year-old winger who has played with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the past 11 seasons. This season was the final year of his seven-year contract which carried a $4.45M cap hit. Killorn is coming off a season where he posted 27 goals and 37 assists for 64 points in 82 games played this season. In his 11 year NHL career, he’s scored 198 goals and 268 assists for 466 points in 805 games played.
Here’s Killorn’s player card via Evolving Hockey:
Killorn is an effective forward, especially offensively. His Goals Above Replacement (GAR) ranks in the 92nd percentile for value, offensively, and is also quite valuable on the power play. The downside here is, he’s not quite as valuable defensively, coming in at the 24th percentile.
Killorn is effectively an all-situation player, who can contribute during even-strength, power play, and on the penalty kill.
Evolving Hockey has Killorn’s next contract projected to be a six-year deal that carries a $6.778M cap hit. For a player that is turning 34 before next season starts, that’s quite a long contract for a pretty hefty cap hit.
Does he fit the Caps?
If we were just looking at the pure results on the ice, I’d say yes. He can contribute offensively at a high efficiency rate, and could be a contributor in all game situations. The issue is, if Killorn can get the contract that Evolving Hockey has him projected to receive, that’s sort of out of the Caps’ realm of possibilities unless there’s major efforts to shed cap space.
On top of that, he’s going to be 34 this off-season. On a two-year contract, it would make a ton of sense. On a six year contract? That would be a tough pill to swallow.
Kane is a 34-year-old right wing that played for the Chicago Blackhawks for the first 15 and a half seasons of his career before being traded to the New York Rangers at the 2023 trade deadline. This season was the final season of a 8-year contract that carried a $10.5M cap hit. Kane posted 21 goals and 36 assists for 57 points in 73 games this season. In his 16 year career, he’s scored 451 goals and 786 assists for 1237 points in 1180 career games.
Here’s Kane’s player card via Evolving Hockey:
This player card is far from what we’ve seen from Kane throughout his career. Even going back to the 2021-22 season, Kane posted 26 goals and 66 assists for 92 points in 78 games played. We’re seeing a bit of a decline in offensive production and overall value offensively, and a complete bottoming out of defensive value (or lack thereof). At this point in his career, he’s effectively a player you’ll need to shelter a ton in terms of deployments, and he can be a main figure on your power play.
Evolving Hockey has Kane’s next contract projected to be a five year deal that carries a $7.615M cap hit. Kane will turn 35 during the 2023-24 season. That’s a hefty price to pay for a clearly declining Kane.
Does he fit the Caps?
Long story short, no, he won’t fit the Caps plans for next season and beyond. The Capitals already have a purely offensive-minded forward with negative defensive value in Alex Ovechkin, and they don’t need to add another. Kane isn’t the player he once was anymore, and he’ll likely be the target of a team on the upswing that has cap space to use.
Domi is a 28-year-old left wing with center flexibility. He’s moved around quite a bit through his eight year NHL career, playing stints with the Arizona Coyotes, the Montreal Canadiens, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Dallas Stars. He signed a one-year deal with a $3M cap hit last off-season with the Blackhawks before getting traded to the Stars at the trade deadline.
This season, Domi potted 20 goals and 36 assists for 56 points in 80 games played. This is only the second time in his career that he scored 20 goals or more, with the first coming in the 2018-19 season with the Montreal Canadiens where he scored 28 goals.
Domi has 121 goals and 249 assists for 370 points in 581 career games.
Here’s Domi’s player card via Evolving Hockey:
Interestingly enough, Max Domi and Patrick Kane had very similar performances in their performance percentiles this season, with Domi only finishing one percentile point better than Kane this season.
For a player who received a lot of even-strength and power play ice time, his offensive production wasn’t really where you’d expect it for a player that has more of an offensive skill set to his game. The level of offensive production wasn’t good enough to offset his absolute defensive black hole when he was on the ice.
Something to keep an eye on with Domi is his scoring splits when comparing even-strength to his power play production. Eight of his 20 goals came on the power play, and 11 of his 36 assists came with the extra man. That means that only 12 goals and 25 assists came during even-strength play, which is indicative of a player that cannot generate at a top six pace during even-strength.
Evolving Hockey has Domi’s next contract projected to be a three year contract that carries a $4.572M cap hit.
Does he fit the Caps?
For Domi’s production level, both this past season and historically, I don’t think he brings the top-six level of finishing that the Capitals so desperately need. If Domi ends up signing a contract similar to Evolving Hockey’s projection, he’s much too expensive for his production levels.
For reference, if Sonny Milano had played all 82 games this past season, he would have scored about 42 points this season with 14 goals. Milano’s new contract will have him coming in at a $1.9M cap hit. Is Domi’s 20 goals and 36 assists worth $2.672M more than Milano?
Compher, 28, is a center with wing flexibility that has played his entire seven-year NHL career with the Colorado Avalanche. This past season was the final year of a four-year deal that carried a $3.5M cap hit.
Compher scored 17 goals and dished out 35 assists for 52 points in 82 games this season for the Avalanche. In his career, he has scored 88 goals and 106 assists for 194 points in 423 games.
Here’s Compher’s player card via Evolving Hockey:
Compher is the most well-rounded player that we’ve evaluated so far to this post, chipping in both offensively and defensively. Compher has pretty good aptitude defensively and is more of a two-way forward than purely offensively focused or defensively focused.
It’s interesting to see how ineffective he was on the penalty kill, though. This might have been affected by the Avalanche’s overall ineffectiveness on the penalty kill though, finishing 17th in the NHL with 79% effectiveness.
Evolving Hockey has him projected to receive a 4 year contract that carries a $5.696M cap hit.
Does he fit the Caps?
While the Caps could certainly get some better defensive play out of their forward group, it doesn’t quite make sense for the Capitals to go after a player who doesn’t produce scoring at a high rate. Compher’s play style is likely best suited for a third line center on a really good team, but he’d be a lower end second center. The Capitals could trade for a player with a similar cap hit that Compher is projected to receive and get a player that has more offensive prowess, since finishing was the major issue with this team offensively.
Tarasenko is a 31-year-old right winger that has played most of his career with the St Louis Blues until he was traded to the New York Rangers near the NHL Trade Deadline this past season. This was the final year of a 8 year contract that carried a $7.5M cap hit.
Tarasenko scored 18 goals and 32 assists for 50 points in 69 games played this season. In his career, he has scored 270 goals and dished out 304 assists for 574 points in 675 games. Tarasenko has surpassed the 30 goal mark six times in his 11 year career, including one 40 goal season.
Here’s Tarasenko’s player card via Evolving Hockey:
This wasn’t really a banner year for the Russian winger in terms of GAR value. He’s not effective defensively, and wasn’t nearly as effective offensively as we’ve seen historically with Tarasenko. In the 2021-22 season, Tarasenko did score 34 goals and 48 assists for 82 points in 75 games, so it’s unlikely that Tarasenko’s offensive prowess will continue to degrade at the pace we saw this past season, especially since he’s only 31.
Evolving Hockey has him projected to receive a 3 year contract that carries a $5.305M cap hit.
Does he fit the Caps?
Realistically, paying a proven goal scorer $5.305M a season isn’t a bad thing at all. With his skill set largely mirroring Alex Ovechkin’s, does it make sense to bring on another offense only forward?
If the Capitals scour the trade market prior to July 1st and don’t find any suitable deals, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Caps inquired on Tarasenko. On a short term deal, it makes a lot of sense if the Capitals can free up some cap space.
Bunting is a 27-year-old left winger that has played the past two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He saw sparse game action in Arizona in the 2018-19 and 2020-21 seasons. Bunting is coming off the final year of a 2 year contract that carried a $950k cap hit.
This year, Bunting scored 23 points and 26 assists for 49 points in 82 games played. In his career, he has 57 goals, 69 assists, and 126 points in 187 games played. We’ve gone more in-depth into evaluating Bunting earlier this year.
Here’s Bunting’s player card via Evolving Hockey:
Bunting was really effective in generating offensive value this season, playing most of his time in the top six, especially with Auston Matthews. Bunting doesn’t contribute a lot of value defensively, but could add depth to the second power play unit and could be an effective secondary scorer on the second line.
Evolving Hockey has him projected to receive a 4 year contract that carries a $5.436M cap hit.
Does he fit the Caps?
Out of all the players on this list, I think Bunting makes the most sense for the Capitals if they’re targeting a player in free agency to help their top six forward group. He’s shown the ability to score goals and contribute on lines with elite offensive talent. Not only does he have the production to show for it, but he also fits the age group the Capitals are looking to bring into the fold. He’s only 27 and will turn 28 just before the season starts.
Signing Bunting would mean adding a player that is smack in the middle of his prime years, and a 4 year contract would be less risky for a player of that age group.
Tatar is a 32 year old left winger that has bounced around the league a bit after departing the Detroit Red Wings after 7 seasons. He’s played for the Vegas Golden Knights, the Montreal Canadiens, and the New Jersey Devils since the 2017-18 season. This past season was the final year of a two year contract that carried a $4.5M cap hit.
This season, Tatar scored 20 goals and 28 assists in 82 games played with the Devils. In his career, he’s scored 211 goals, 244 assists, and 455 points in 783 games played.
Here’s Tatar’s player card via Evolving Hockey:
Tatar was supremely effective for the New Jersey Devils this past season. It’s not really a surprise though, considering the Devils were the darlings of the analytics community this season. He has proven to be an effective two-way forward that can generate offensively while being elite defensively.
It’s interesting that the Devils didn’t use him on the penalty kill at all considering his defensive abilities.
Evolving Hockey has him projected to receive a 3 year contract that carries a $3.899M cap hit.
Does he fit the Caps?
With the relatively short term projected contract and the rather affordable $3.899M cap hit for a player of Tatar’s performance level, he could certainly fit the mold of what the Caps would want for a second line forward. Tatar is a seven time 20 goal scorer.
The issue is, Tatar is 32 years old and will turn 33 in December. It’s risky to bank on three years of Tatar continuing the output that he generated this past season with the Devils. Tatar is another player that might make sense to sign at this contract projection tier if the trade market doesn’t generate the type of player the Caps wish to acquire.
Zucker is a 31 year old left winger who has played the last four seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins. This past season was the final year of a 5 year contract that carried a $5.5M cap hit. Prior to playing for the Penguins, Zucker played for the Minnesota Wild for 9 seasons before being traded to the Penguins near the 2020 trade deadline.
This season, Zucker scored 27 goals and 21 assists for 48 points in 78 games played. In his career, he has scored 182 goals, 156 assists, and 338 points in 628 games.
Here’s Zucker’s player card via Evolving Hockey:
Zucker was really effective offensively this season during even-strength, posting his highest goal scoring total since the 2017-18 season, where he scored 33 goals. Interestingly enough, the only place where Zucker was even remotely effective was offense at even-strength and only really received shifts on the second unit of the Penguins’ power play.
Evolving Hockey has him projected to receive a 5 year contract that carries a $5.136M cap hit.
Does he fit the Caps?
Brian MacLellan surely loves signing former Penguins players, but he might want to steer clear of this one. Zucker definitely had a good offensive season in 2022-23, but he only played in 79 total games in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. He has only played a full 82 game season once in his career in 2017-18, and has dealt with a slew of injuries since then.
If you sign Zucker to a similar contract that Evolving Hockey projected for him, you’re really banking on seeing a healthy Zucker for the majority of that contract. Based off of recent history, that’s a risky proposition for a roster that has already had its fair share of injury plagued seasons.
Free Agency Outlook
Realistically, this might not be the best summer to foray into free agency to solve your needs in the top six forward group. It might be the last resort for MacLellan, but I’d assume the trade market is going to be the primary window for acquiring players to slot into the top six forward group.
Free agency is always a risky and expensive endeavor. You might not have to part with premium assets to acquire difference makers, but you’re usually shelling out more money and term than you’re expecting because you have to out-bid other teams that are interested in the players you are looking to sign.
Typically, you look to free agency when you have a wealth of cap space and only a couple of spots to fill on the roster. The Caps only have half of this equation, since they are only slated to have $6,524,167 in cap space if the salary cap ceiling is increased to $83.5M. Obviously, the Caps could move out some expensive contracts to make room for new players, but you have to find the right deals where you aren’t paying a team premium assets just to absorb the contract you’re looking to part from.
By Justin Trudel
I honestly think the age range for the caps in the off season should be anyone under 30, we have bad injury luck with almost all of our 30+ year old players. Also Tyler Bertuzzi will most likely hit the market and he should be a prime target for the caps.
I’d be willing to go 2-3 years with someone that’s in the neighborhood of 30 or 31, but it’d really have to be the right player. It’s certainly less risky to go after the younger UFAs though.
Bertuzzi would be a good option, but he’s going to be really coveted by a lot of NHL teams. In a pretty shallow free agent market, I’m betting that Bertuzzi gets the biggest contract.
Not a lot of good free forward candidates this summer. I agree, it’s looking more and more like trades will be the primary tool for roster reshaping this summer.
Agreed, I think we’re probably going to see more trades that follow the model of the Sandin acquisition. Young player that performs well in a lesser role that’s in need of a bigger role.
Slim Pickins. (I think he toured with Willie Nelson in the late 70’s😂)
I’m thinking it might be a good idea to pull the Kotkaniemi move on one of the RFA’s: offer more than their worth on a one year deal and then, because of team control, sign then to a reasonable salary after. Pierre Luc-Dubois and Yegor Sharangovich seem to be prime candidates for this ploy although the draft pick hit would be steep for the former.
There’s a lot of good RFAs this season, but the draft compensation is going to be pretty hefty. I wouldn’t mortgage the Caps’ 2024 first round pick at this point, just because you don’t know how well the team is going to do. I’d be more willing to hang onto that pick until at least the trade deadline so you can get an impactful player in a trade.
Now, if the Caps are sitting at the 8th pick and they want to get a younger player that can contribute now, do they consider trading that pick for a player like Alex DeBrincat?
I would not look at signing any top free agents until 3-4 years from now. Lets just get through this oh so important record, not make the playoffs for several years thus getting high draft picks and then after Ovie retires amd with a new young coach and playing younger players sign a UFA, if needed, for leadership, playoff experience or soring but save the bucks now and the draft picks.
Rinse and repeat
Would love to have DeBrincat and, yes, if Mitchkov is off the board I’d take that trade although I doubt it would be offered straight up. He’s young and he’s a proven commodity. The question is who do we move out of his way so he becomes a top offensive player on our team?
Dont want anyone over 30 and not willing to pay what any of those guys are going to be asking for in terms of salary or years. Do what the Gm did last year…..sign players off the waiver wire or scrap heap on the cheap. Or novel idea….PLAY THE ROOKIES!!
Great analysis Justin. Current Free Agent market is sparse indeed! I would consider the Caps’ offseason as a major bust if they bring in ANY of the Free Agents on this list.
Like many comments on this line, Caps have a glorious opportunity to deploy their own, home-grown talent. On the Ice, and Behind the Bench!
Sparse indeed, “Prevent”. We are going through all of the options for fortifying the top six (as noted by Mac) and it’s becoming pretty clear that a trade will be the only way to go this summer.
Bertuzi Wilson BecK M on same team 😍
Barbashev is the only UFA worth looking at (depending on term he wants). More need on D, someone with the ability to clear the crease and work the boards. NHL network profiled the VGK’s Ds as one of reasons they are moving on – they are all BIG. If not, let the rookies play and see what develops.
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