By: Joe Pohoryles
With all sports stopped, there is little certainty about if/when the NHL season will continue. As we sit and wait for things to return to normal, now is an opportunity to look forward to some names for the Caps to go after as they will be tasked to re-tool in 2020 free agency.
The team was struggling before the season was suspended, but they still posed a potent threat in the Eastern Conference, and had a great chance to win their second Cup in three seasons. That chance may never come, and if that is the case, the team must focus on pushing that momentum over to next season.
For the 2020-21 season, there are currently 16 players under contract. Radko Gudas, Braden Holtby and trade deadline acquisitions Brenden Dillon and Ilya Kovalchuk will be unrestricted free agents this offseason. Travis Boyd, Jonas Siegenthaler and Brendan Leipsic will each be restricted free agents.
With 16 spots accounted for and four to seven slots needed to be filled, the team is projected to have just over $14 million in cap space. The top six forwards are all under contract, as is third center Lars Eller, so there is not much need for major offensive additions, despite the core aging even more.
Even depth forwards are mostly accounted for. Carl Hagelin, Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway each have three years left on their contracts, and Nic Dowd has two years on his. It’s clear that defense and goaltending should be the main priority in free agency.
It is widely expected that the team will be without Holtby due to the tight salary cap situation. Despite Holtby’s up-and-down play this season, his loss would be a blow to the team. It’s comforting knowing Ilya Samsonov was among the best rookie netminders this season, but the team still needs to fill the hole expected to be left behind by Holtby.
Some productive veterans on the market include Jaroslav Halak, Anton Khudobin and Robin Lehner. Halak spent time in Washington at the end of the 2013-14 season, but has since played serviceably as Tukka Rask’s backup in Boston. Halak will be 35 next season, is a capable veteran to help take the load off of Samsonov, and would not demand a significant increase from his current $2.25 million salary.
Khudobin has less experience, but has played at least 30 games each of the past three years, including the past two as Ben Bishop’s backup in Dallas. His .930 save percentage was leading the entire league this season, and paired nicely with a 2.22 goals against average. He’s no one-year wonder either; he posted a .923 save percentage and 2.57 GAA last season, so his services will likely be wanted by at least several other teams, which would jack up the price from his current $2.5 million salary. He’s at least worth looking at.
Lehner, on the other hand, has thrived in tandem situations, and is just 29 years old. He was a Vezina finalist in 2019 with the Islanders and posted a .920 save percentage and 2.89 GAA this season with Chicago and Vegas. He played with Corey Crawford in Chicago, and just started gearing up for a playoff run as Marc André-Fleury’s backup with the Golden Knights, and has held his own compared to two netminders that have five Stanley Cups combined. Lehner carries a $5 million salary this season, and with Vegas trading for him during the deadline, they may want to pay a premium to retain him.
Other free agent options that could come at lower cap hits include the New York Islanders’ Thomas Greiss and the Calgary Flames’ Cam Talbot, but the Caps could really use a solid veteran presence besides Samsonov, no matter who they end up bringing in.
For the blue line, Dillon and Siegenthaler should be the top in-house priorities, in my opinion. The Caps are only playing $1.635 million of Dillon’s $3.9 million salary, so he’ll command more in cap space should the Caps re-sign him, but based on how he’s meshed with the defensive unit and the physicality and big game experience he brings to the table, I’d like to see him stick around.
Siegenthaler, meanwhile, will be just 23 years old next season and should continue to develop. He will be getting out of his entry-level contract, and as a restricted free agent should be easier to maintain. After making $750k this season, his salary should increase to somewhere between $1-3 million wherever he signs. With everyone else on the blue line between 28-30 years old, Siegenthaler brings some youth.
Gudas has been solid, and if there is room for him as well I’m fine with that, especially if Siegenthaler and/or Dillon walk, but with no true second-pair right pair defenseman between Nick Jensen, Siegenthaler and Gudas, I’d like to see if they can lure one in through free agency.
Of the possible new faces to the Caps’ defensive unit, at least two are currently in the organization. Both Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev could secure full-time spots next season depending on the way free agency shakes out. Both are left shots, although Fehervary has experience playing on the right, so those are each enticing, young options.
Of the free agents, the realistic options are fairly slim, especially given the lack of cap flexibility. One interesting name is a familiar face: Kevin Shattenkirk of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He spent 19 games in Washington after the 2017 trade deadline before signing with the New York Rangers. The 31-year-old has a $1.75 million cap hit as Tampa’s second pair right defenseman, and has 34 points in 70 games with a +/- of +22. His current contract has a no-trade clause, so I’d imagine it would be difficult to pry him out of Tampa Bay’s hands, but if the opportunity presents itself, he seems suitable in that second pair role.
There are a handful of intriguing RFAs, such as Brandon Montour of Buffalo, Vancouver’s Troy Stecher and Ryan Pulock of the Islanders, but as they are each key contributors for their respective teams entering their age 26 seasons, it would be hard to picture the Caps having a real shot at any of them. Maybe the Caps will throw extra money at someone they really like, but $14 million is not an exorbitant amount to spread across four to seven players.
Looking at the other free agents, I would be surprised if Kovalchuk stayed, given the Caps’ priorities and how much he enjoyed playing in Montreal. Maybe it’s too early to tell. If the Caps can manage to sign him for a similar price to his 2020 salary of $700k, then I’m all for it.
Leipsic has been a fine fourth-line winger, and at just $700k this year, I would not imagine he would command much more should he re-sign, so that will mainly depend on whether the Caps want him back or not.
As mentioned, there is not much cap room to make a major splash for the offense, and with the top six already settled for the long term (except for Alex Ovechkin, who will be entering the final year of his 13-year contract), there is not a significant need for one. Either way, next time I’ll take a look at some potential offensive depth targets.
(Cover Photo Credit: Kovalcuk- The Washington Post; Holtby- The Hockey Writers)