Roster, Contract Decisions Loom for Caps

Hockey season is over in Washington, and the critical time of negotiations, decisions and drafting is just ahead

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

Washington, D.C.- Late last week, the Caps’ organization officially dimmed the lights on the 2018-19 season when its AHL Hershey affiliate was ousted in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs. While we can still watch the last month of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the IIHF World Championship and the conclusion of the Memorial Cup playoffs in the coming weeks, by this time next month we’ll be at or near the conclusion of another hockey season.

That also means we’re heading into the most important part of the hockey calendar from the standpoint of roster construction. The heavy lifting of roster building in the modern NHL generally takes place between June 15-July 5. A look a the Caps’ season-ending roster shows only five players who joined the Washington organization outside of that narrow early summer window.

Defensemen Michal Kempny (in 2018) and Nick Jensen (in 2019) came to the District in February trades in the final days leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline, as did winger Carl Hagelin (in 2019) and goaltender Pheonix Copley (in 2017). Forward Dmitrij Jaskin came via a waiver claim last October, but every other player on the Washington roster came into the Caps’ organization at some point during that June 15-July 5 window.

For the last several seasons, the Caps have spent virtually right up to the salary cap ceiling, and they’re expected to do so again in 2019-20. The league’s salary cap should increase by a few million bucks for next season – most observers estimate it will end up in the $83 million range – but even with that increase, it will be impossible for the Capitals to retain all of their impending free agents.

According to capfriendly.com, Washington has eight forwards under contract at a total cap hit of just over $40 million for next season. The Caps have six defensemen signed for just over $24.5 million, and they have both goaltenders under contract for a total of $7.2 million. All together, they’ve committed just under $71.8 million for 16 players, which is likely to leave them with roughly $11 million for six or seven players with which to fill out the remainder of their roster, barring any trades.

A cursory glance at the Caps’ roster shows all four centers are under contract for 2019-20, and among the team’s top four wingers, only restricted free agent Jakub Vrana is unsigned. The 23-year-old Vrana is coming off his entry-level deal and his best season in the NHL. Whether Vrana gets a long-term extension or a shorter bridge deal remains to be seen, but either way his salary is certain to climb exponentially from its 2018-19 base figure of $863,333.

Wingers Hagelin, Brett Connolly, and Devante Smith-Pelly will become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Connolly, who made $1.5 million last season, is in line to triple that figure as he seeks a multi-year deal in the wake of his best NHL season in 2018-19. Connolly was one of 122 players in the league to reach the 20-goal plateau last season, and he was one of 141 players to record 45 or more points on the season.

Among all 20-goal scorers, only Columbus’ Oliver Bjorkstrand (12:20 per night) averaged less ice time than Connolly (13:20) in 2018-19. Among those skaters with 45-point seasons in 2018-19, none averaged less ice time per game than Connolly. Additionally, Connolly – and Vrana, too – were among 10 of the league’s 20-goal getters who had no more than one power-play goal on the season. At the age of 27, Connolly is in line to get paid this summer. He would love to stay in Washington, and the Caps are interested in keeping him, but they may not have enough salary cap space to get it done.

From Connolly’s standpoint, he would be third on Washington’s right wing depth chart behind Tom Wilsonand T.J. Oshie, both of whom are under contract for the next several seasons. How does Connolly balance his desire to stay in Washington with the knowledge that he could likely get paid top-six money and be put in a top six role with some power play time if he opts to test the market?

“If I had an answer for you, I’d give it to you,” says Connolly. “But I’ve never been in this position before. Obviously, coming here changed my career. There is no question. It gave me a whole different outlook on my game and the perception of me around the league with other teams, coaches and GMs as to what I can do now. So I’m excited. I kind of built my way back up to where I started, and there are going to be a lot of decisions to make here in the next month or two for me and my family.

“It’s important to be comfortable on both sides of the spectrum. The city has been great for us, and my wife loves it here. The other wives are awesome. There are going to be a lot of things to talk about in a lot of different areas, and we will make a decision based on a lot of different things. But for me, I want to just enjoy the process and really be excited about it because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and for all these guys who came here out of UFA or signed out of free agency and made some money, laid some roots down and had a family. So it’s a big decision and I’m excited. I think we’re just going to have fun with it, and just make the decision that I think is right at the time and go from there.”

Hagelin is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he skated for three different NHL teams, but the veteran two-way winger played extremely well in his two-month stint with the Caps. There is interest in keeping Hagelin in Washington, too. He will turn 31 later this summer, and is likely seeking a multi-year deal. Hagelin just finished a four-year contract that carried an annual salary cap hit of $4 million, but his next deal is certain to have a lower average annual value to it.

“This organization was great to me,” says Hagelin of the Caps. “It was a really good fit, and I think I filled a void. I was getting good ice time and getting to play with good players. I obviously liked it a lot here. The team has to make a decision, I’ve got to make a decision, and we will sit down and see what their thoughts are. But it’s definitely a team I’m interested in playing for.”

Smith-Pelly earned $1 million last season, and an extension wouldn’t cost any more than that if both sides are amenable to a deal.

Washington also has three restricted free agents among its bottom six forwards: Andre BurakovskyChandler Stephenson and Jaskin. The 24-year-old Burakovsky had a disappointing season in ’18-19, but he finished on a strong note. Coming off a season in which he earned a base salary of $3.25 million, he is unlikely to see a significant increase in pay.

Burakovsky has shown glimmers of top six potential, and he is still young enough that his best seasons likely lay ahead of him.

“Obviously that’s one of the goals,” says Burakovsky, “to be up there [in the top six] and play a lot of minutes and be a key guy, be the difference maker for the team that I know I can be here. I’m just going to keep working hard and try to come back strong.”

Stephenson made $650,000 last season, which is the league minimum. Jaskin earned $1.1 million on a one-year deal in 2018-19 and could certainly be retained for less than that.

Washington has both of its goaltenders and six defensemen under contract for next season, with only unrestricted free agent Brooks Orpik and restricted free agent Christian Djoos unsigned at this point.

Orpik signed as five-year deal with Washington in the summer of 2019, hoping to win a Cup at some point during his tenure here, and his presence here over the last half decade was critical in the Caps finally reaching the promised land last spring.

“I think coming into the five-year [contract],” says Orpik, “it was obviously a family decision to come here, and the main goal was to come here and try to help this group ultimately win a Stanley Cup. The first three years, it didn’t go as planned, and we had some disappointment. But if someone told me before the last five years that I was going to win a Stanley Cup, I would have signed up for it in a heartbeat. I don’t know what my exact role was in helping the group, but I will look back on it and feel some sort of accomplishment.”

Orpik turns 39 just ahead of the start of the 2019-20 season, and may be mulling retirement. He will make a decision as to his playing future at some point this summer.

“Physically, I feel great,” says Orpik. “I had the knee injury this year, and it was tough having that surgery in season. But that’s something that will hopefully clear up in the next month or so with the proper time off. You don’t really get enough time off during the season to fully come back from that.

“During the year, I was frustrated a little bit because we were having a tough time keeping the swelling out of my knee. So I was getting frustrated with that, and not being able to perform how I wanted to perform. But once we got to the last 10-game segment [of the regular season] and then the playoffs, too, it was a lot more enjoyable for me because I could play at a level that I could accept and be happy with. That was big.

“In terms of going forward, it’s probably something I won’t make a decision on until late July or August, I think. I won’t be in any rush. I’m getting older now and the kids are a big part of my life, so it will be a family decision more than anything. And then obviously health will play a factor there. I still love playing and my commitment level is just as strong as it’s even been. So I think it will be more of what’s right for our family, and then how the body is feeling.”

Djoos missed a chunk of the 2018-19 season with a serious lower body injury, which curtailed the progress of the 24-year-old defenseman’s career. Djoos also earned $650,000 last season, and the Caps should be able to get him signed for a minimal increase in salary.

Decisions on Burakovsky, Connolly, Hagelin and Vrana are the biggest ones looming for Washington over the next six weeks or so. How those decisions and negotiations play out will help determine the makeup of the wings on Washington’s bottom six. While the Caps’ hockey operations department will be fully focused on that developing situation, the amateur side is all in on preparation for the 2019 NHL Draft, which will be held in Vancouver on June 21-22.

The Caps currently hold five choices in the 2019 draft. They don’t have their picks in the third and sixth rounds, and their fifth-round pick originally belonged to Buffalo. If there is an opportunity to add a pick or two between now and the draft, the Caps would likely be interested; Washington has had a full complement of seven draft choices only twice since 2012, and the Caps’ prospect cupboard is certainly in need of some replenishing.

With all of that in mind, here is a rundown of key dates to keep in mind as the summer unfolds:

  • May 27-June 1 – NHL Draft Combine in Buffalo
  • June 15-30 – Buyout period for teams to get salary cap relief from onerous contracts
  • June 20 – NHL GMs meeting in Vancouver
  • June 21-22  NHL Draft in Vancouver
  • June 23-30  Window open for impending unrestricted free agents to interview with other teams
  • June 25 – Deadline for teams to issue qualifying offers to restricted free agents
  • June 26-30  Window open for impending restricted free agents to interview with other teams
  • July 1 – Free agency period opens at noon
  • July 5 – Deadline for eligible players to file for arbitration
  • July 6 – Deadline for teams to file for team-initiated arbitration
  • July 20-August 4 – Individual arbitrations hearings in Toronto