In professional sports, free agents can make a world of difference for a team. Building through the draft is important, but being able to bring in an established player who can immediately bolster the roster can turn a playoff team into a championship contender. In other cases, teams just need a less expensive veteran to add some depth.
Washington is not considered a major spot for free agents, as it doesn’t boast the same type of weather and nightlife as Los Angeles and Miami, nor does it have the same market opportunities as New York or Chicago, but that has not stopped the team from bringing in major additions over the years.
Some have worked out great, like London Fletcher, who signed a five-year deal with the Redskins in 2007 and immediately became a major presence for the defense. Others have been disastrous, like Albert Haynesworth, who signed a seven-year/$100 million deal in 2009 but barely lasted two seasons.
Looking from 2010 to 2019, I will be breaking down the best and worst free agency signings from each of the four major Washington teams, starting with the Capitals. These signings do NOT include contract extensions for players already on the team or players who came in from a trade. These are only for players who came to DC from another team through free agency.
Best: Brett Connolly (2016)
Initial deal: One year, $850,000
Subsequent deal(s): Two years, $3 million
The 2010 sixth overall pick flamed out in Tampa Bay and Boston before the Capitals signed him in 2016 on a “prove it” deal. Still just 24 years old, it was Connolly’s last real chance to prove he could stick around in the NHL.
Joining the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, Connolly shuffled in and out of the lineup from time to time as there was a lot of competition for playing time. He appeared in 66 games, scoring a career-high 15 goals and an additional eight assists as the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy for the second year in a row.
His performance in 2016-17 earned him a two-year extension, where he became a staple on the third line. He scored 15 goals to go with 12 assists to give him a career-high in points (27). He tallied nine additional points in the playoffs that year (6g, 3a) en route to a Stanley Cup victory. Lars Eller will always be remembered as the man who scored the game-winning goal in the Game 5 Cup-clincher, but it was Connolly who thrusted the puck on net. He beat Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury through the five-hole before the puck came to a rest on the crease. Eller swung in to knock it into a gaping net, and the rest was history.
It was the following year where Connolly really exploded, however, as he dusted his previous career-highs with 22 goals and 24 assists for 46 points, good enough for seventh on the team. His production from the third line would have served the Capitals well down the road, but with his two-year extension ending, Connolly received better offers that the cash-strapped Capitals couldn’t match.
Connolly eventually settled on a four-year, $14 million deal with the Florida Panthers, where he posted 33 points (19g, 14a) through 69 games in 2019-20.
Worst: Richard Panik (2019)
Initial deal: Four years, $11 million
Subsequent deal(s): N/A
It could be premature to list Panik here, as it’s been just one shortened season to go off of, and his play had been improving prior to the stoppage, but given the price tag compared to some of the other sour deals over the past decade, it’s looking like Panik gets the title.
I would love to put Brendan Leipsic here, as the fourth-liner was released from the team after a handful of his misogynistic and vulgar Instagram direct messages were leaked in early May. He made disparaging comments about former teammates from other teams, several of their wives, and even his Capitals linemates, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway. He just signed to the KHL last week.
The truth is that Leipsic was brought in on a one-year/$700,000 year deal without any guarantee that he would remain with the team after training camp. It was as low-risk as they come. Panik, meanwhile, was given four years and paid to be a productive third-liner. He hasn’t clicked with Eller and Carl Hagelin, and the arrival of Ilya Kovalchuk has bumped him down to the fourth line, which is probably a better fit for him. A solid, yet highly paid fourth-liner is better than a detrimental third-liner, but it’s still a disappointing result.
Essentially brought in to replace Connolly, Panik has not been able to effectively compensate for Connolly’s loss. With Kovalchuk likely to leave after the 2020 playoffs, Panik could have another chance to earn his third line spot back. There’s still time for him, but the first-year results have been poor. If anything, this pick is a testament to how well the team’s free agency signings have been over the past 10 years.