With unrestricted free agency officially opening for business at noon on Saturday, the Washington Capitals will surely be on the hunt for bargain bin improvements. This may include younger players that were pending restricted free agents but were not tendered qualifying offers, making them free agents.
Pending any trades that may occur, whether it be to offload expensive contracts that aren’t worth the price tag anymore or bringing in a new top six option, the Capitals are pretty cap-strapped and may look for an unheralded option as a potential lottery ticket.
We’ve seen recent success by the Capitals in the free agent pool, specifically around restricted free agents that did not receive qualifying offers in Dylan Strome and Sonny Milano. Could the Capitals go bargain hunting once again this summer? Here are a few notable options, including a potential reclamation project.
In this post, we’ll be taking a look at three options that the Capitals could take a gander at during unrestricted free agency. We’ll be using their isolated impact to judge their impact while on the ice versus off the ice, as well as their Rate Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM), which compares key metric performance to the league average. The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz, and Hockey Reference.
If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
The first player we’re going to take a look at is the rugged right winger Christian Fischer, who just turned 26 years old in April. Fischer has played all seven years of his career with the Arizona Coyotes, where he was initially drafted in the second round (32nd overall) in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. This past season, he posted 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points in 80 games played. In his career, he’s posted 56 goals and 55 assists for 111 points in 398 games.
Let’s take a look at Fischer’s RAPM chart:
Fischer was definitely not dominant, offensively, as you might expect based off of his point production figures. What does add value for Fischer is his defensive ability. He’s relatively solid in relation to league average in suppressing expected goals against per sixty (xGA/60) and Corsi shot attempts against per sixty (CA/60).
Considering just how putrid the Coyotes were this past season in underlying metrics, this is a relatively good sign that Fischer would be even more effective on a better team with more defensive support around him.
Let’s take a look at his isolated impact chart:
Although Fischer didn’t put up strong performances, offensively, when compared to league average, the Coyotes were actually slightly more effective in generating expected goals for per sixty (xGF/60) while Fischer was on the ice. On top of that, the Coyotes were 2% more effective in suppressing xGA/60 in both even-strength and penalty killing game situations.
Now, the scoring doesn’t really jump off the page at you, but he brings a real physical presence to the ice. He racked up 126 hits last season, and could be a solid addition to the bottom six. Fischer feels like a player that could fit the mold of a Garnet Hathaway-type player on the fourth line, and should be able to be signed to a rather affordable contract.
It was rather surprising to see the Seattle Kraken chose not to tender a qualifying offer to Sprong after posting a 21 goal and 25 assist scoring output in 66 games played. Obviously, we’re all pretty familiar with Sprong, who played 89 games with the Capitals before being traded to the Seattle Kraken for Marcus Johansson at the 2022 trade deadline.
Sprong is a spry 26 years old and could potentially be a solid scoring option on the cheaper end of the cap spectrum. We all know the Capitals could really use another 20 goal scorer in the lineup, especially with the presumed exit of Conor Sheary.
Sprong has scored 67 goals and 49 assists for 116 points in 268 games played in his career. He was a former second round pick (46th overall) by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Let’s take a look at Sprong’s RAPM chart:
This adds a whole new layer to my confusion around Seattle’s decision to non-tender Sprong. Sprong posted very solid results across the board, even defensively (which was one of the improvement areas for him). He also performed rather well on the power play in relation to league average.
Here’s Sprong’s isolated impact chart:
Sprong was immensely impactful during even strength offensive situations, resulting in 10% higher xGF/60 for the Kraken when he was on the ice. On top of that, that offensive production wasn’t traded off for defensive let-downs, where the Kraken were ever-so-slightly more effective in reducing xGA/60 while Sprong was deployed.
Sprong hasn’t really been trusted through his career with a top-six role for extended periods of time. In fact, this past season, he only averaged about 11:25 in time-on-ice and still put up 21 goals. Is it time to see top six Sprong? Perhaps.
I mentioned in the introduction to this post that there’s a potential reclamation project that the Capitals might consider, and it’s Denis Gurianov. I’m going to preface this section with a warning: the underlying performance metrics for Gurianov are rather rough. On the other hand, though, Gurianov is a former 12th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft that has a 20 goal season under his belt.
This past season with the Montreal Canadiens and the Dallas Stars, he posted 7 goals and 10 assists for 17 points in 66 games played. That’s not necessarily the goal scoring output that you want to see from a potential option, but with a league minimum cap hit, perhaps it’s worth the contract spot.
Back in the 2019-20 season, Gurianov scored 20 goals and 9 assists for 29 points in 64 games. If Gurianov can perform like that again, it would be a true reclamation success. The issue there is, Gurianov had a shooting percentage of 15.2% that season, nearly 6% higher than his career average of 9.4%.
Here’s Gurianov’s RAPM chart:
Here’s his isolated impact:
Somehow, a former 20 goal scorer resulted in 13% lower xGF/60 during even-strength when he was deployed on the ice. On top of that, the defensive capabilities weren’t there, resulting in 5% more xGA/60 for his teams when he was deployed.
Really, the verdict here is, if you feel like you can get Gurianov back to the finishing ability he displayed in the 2019-20 season, it’s worth a shot. But for a team that’s looking to compete for the playoffs with really limited slots available in the lineup, it’s probably worth letting another team try to repair his game and potentially acquire him later on when his ship has been righted.
Bargain Bin Shopping
The Capitals will definitely be in the mix for any player that they believe can help impact the team positively, and will likely be targeting players they feel can slot into the top six and help their woeful finishing ability last season. The player from this list that makes the most sense is Daniel Sprong. Perhaps a reunion is possible, but he’s not going to be quite as cheap as some of the other non-tendered restricted free agents out there, since he’s coming off of a 20 goal season.
Fischer is an intriguing option, but the bottom six feels like it’s pretty full of potential roster spots. If the Caps had chosen not to bring back Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Fischer would be a no-brainer.
I think the Caps would certainly pass on Gurianov unless the scouting staff truly sees a fixable issue in his game. Reclamation projects are risky for teams that are looking to contend. I’d expect a team in a rebuilding situation to give him a shot to see if they can get him back to being a solid offensive player that they can flip for assets at the trade deadline.