Capitals Free Agency Review

NHL Free Agency opened last Friday, and although the Capitals did not have much cap space to work with, the team made several key signings while also making one tough goodbye. While other deals will trickle in until the start of the season, including a likely trade of one of the team’s blueliners, the brunt of the action is behind us. Here is my take on the team’s additions, departures and returners.

Major additions:

G Henrik Lundqvist: One year, $1.5 million (Oct. 9)

Oddly enough, the crowned jewel of the Caps’ free agent class won’t be a starting player. Granted, the King will garner plenty of starts, but he will serve more as a “1B” behind Ilya Samsonov, who is now officially the man in the crease after just 26 games of NHL experience.

This is why the Lundqvist signing is so important. The Caps urgently needed a cheap, but productive veteran to not only serve as a safety net for Samsonov, but also to mentor the 23-year-old as he navigates his second NHL season. Lundqvist is past his prime and was unceremoniously dumped by the New York Rangers after posting a career-worst .905 save percentage and 3.16 goals against average this past season.

His presence alone won’t help bring the Caps back to the Cup Final, unless he is rejuvenated by the change of scenery, but of all the free agent options the Capitals could afford to bring in as a backup and mentor, Lundqvist was likely the best option. After 15 years in New York, Hank is looking for a Ray Bourque ending in Washington. Now we’ll see if the Caps can pull it off.

D Justin Schultz: Two years, $8 million (Oct. 9)

The right side of the defense was a major concern throughout all of last season. Behind Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson, neither Nick Jensen nor Radko Gudas were able to lock down the second pair spot. Jensen was one of the Caps’ best defensemen in the bubble, but there weren’t many good takeaways from that experience to begin with.

Gudas is gone, and Jensen could be out the door next with the addition of Schultz, the former Pittsburgh blue liner who will be relied on to play behind Carlson on the second pair.

Schultz is a puck-moving defenseman that has missed extensive time due to multiple injuries over the past couple seasons. Throwing a $4 million AAV contract his way could blow up right in the team’s face, but if he can stay healthy and his production can improve it could turn out well.

He will presumably be paired with Dmitry Orlov, who would be an upgrade from his previous partner in Pittsburgh, but there is still a lot of question marks and risk that come with this signing.

D Trevor van Riemsdyk: One year, $800,000 (Oct. 10)

In another effort to beef up the right side of the defense, Brian MacLellan brought in van Riemsdyk on an inexpensive, low-risk deal that should slot him in on the third pair. Formerly seen as a future top-four defenseman when he entered the league with the champion Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, TVR failed to make his mark at his next stop in Carolina.

After holding a $2.3 million cap hit last season, this contract is very much a “prove it” deal for the 29-year-old. Carolina boasts a lot of talent in its defensive corps, but van Riemsdyk will have every opportunity to gain his footing on the Caps’ third pair. While the Schultz signing has a great chance of backfiring, the van Riemsdyk signing could turn into a massive bargain.

The only issue now is that the team is over the salary cap with two extra defensemen under contract. Someone will need to be traded, and of the defensemen that did not receive a new deal this offseason, Carlson is probably the only one safe. Not that I believe Orlov will be traded, but it’s certainly on the table, especially if the team feels it can bring back the most value that way.

Major re-signings:

RW Daniel Sprong: Two years, $1.45 million (Sept. 18)

Sprong was brought in last year and spent the rest of the season with Hershey before joining the Caps in the bubble as a black ace. Of the black aces, Sprong had the most NHL experience by far due to his days in Pittsburgh and Anaheim before he fell out of favor and settled in the AHL.

Still just 23, the former second-round pick is looking to rebound in Washington, and given the other options at forward, he may have a chance. The Capitals need to get under the salary cap, so a trade will be coming, and if the team cannot get an established NHL winger to play in the bottom six, Sprong will have a great opportunity to earn that spot.

It will take a strong training camp, but his low cap hit will work in his favor. He’s no guarantee, but he’ll be someone worth watching as the regular season draws closer.

D Brenden Dillon: Four years, $15.6 million (Oct. 6)

Dillon was the biggest signing for the Caps this offseason, as the deadline acquisition is now here in Washington to stay, likely on the top pair alongside Carlson. Dillon is a strong five-on-five defenseman and complemented Carlson’s offensive nature as a more “stay-at-home” defenseman.

Now the pair has a whole offseason to really gel, and the defense will hopefully stabilize after such an inconsistent 2019-20 campaign.

Major departures:

G Braden Holtby (VAN): Two years, $8.6 million

The writing was on the wall as soon as the ink dried on Nicklas Backstrom’s extension, but it didn’t take the sting away, especially given the context. After Sergei Bobrovsky was signed by Florida to a seven-year/$70 million deal over a year ago, it seemed Holtby was in line for similar compensation, no matter where it came from.

Now, given the financial hardships brought on by the pandemic and Holtby’s declining play, he was forced to take a short-term pay cut in Vancouver. You can’t feel too sorry for someone making $4.3 million a year given the economic struggles many more people around the world are facing, but relative to the NHL landscape, Holtby really deserved better.

Interestingly, Holtby did not have a No-Movement Clause in his contract, so there is a good chance he will be exposed in next year’s Expansion Draft, and he could possibly be the first starting goaltender in Seattle Kraken history. For now, he’ll be working with breakout youngster Thatcher Demko up in British Columbia. We’ll miss you, Holts. Thanks for everything.

D Radko Gudas (FLA): Three years, $7.5 million

Gudas was brought in last season in the Matt Niskanen trade due to his smaller cap hit. Niskanen is now retired, and Gudas landed himself a nice deal in Florida. He was nothing more than a third pair defenseman, and the Caps replaced him with an inexpensive, yet higher upside option. His departure is a win for all sides involved, except maybe for Florida. (Three years? You’re committing to “Dadko” for three years? Interesting…)

C Travis Boyd (TOR): One year, $700,000

Boyd was caught in NHL limbo: Too good to stay in the AHL, but not quite good enough to have a full-time role in the Caps’ bottom six. While Toronto is loaded with forward talent, Boyd should still be able to earn a spot in their bottom six barring a significant change in personnel.

Boyd was called upon to fill in for the injured Backstrom in the bubble, but he eventually lost his spot to Brian Pinho. While there has been a coaching change in DC, it seems Boyd was better off going elsewhere.

Other signings/re-signings:

C Brian Pinho: Two years, $1.45 million (Sept. 17)

D Lucas Johansen: One year, $700,000 (Oct. 3)

D Cameron Schilling: One year, $700,000 (Oct. 10)

D Paul LaDue: One year, $700,000 (Oct. 10)

LW/RW Daniel Carr: One-year, $700,000 (Oct. 11)

All of these other deals won’t hold much significance for the Caps this season, if ever. Pinho got very limited playing time in the bubble during Backstrom’s absence from the lineup, and he at least has a chance to make the roster as an extra forward, but he doesn’t look like he’ll be a huge factor either way.

Johansen is a former first-round pick that has struggled to break through, partially because of a slew of injuries, but this one-year deal seems like his final chance with the organization. He was projected to be in the NHL by now, but it just has not worked out. If he doesn’t make any significant strides this year, expect him to move on to another franchise next offseason, if not sooner.

Schilling, LaDue and Carr are all AHLers that will hopefully bolster Hershey. Schilling and LaDue each totaled over 20 points with their respective AHL teams last year, and Carr tallied 50 points in 47 games with Nashville’s AHL affiliate.

Way-too-early, post-free agency lines prediction

Forwards:

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson

Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – TJ Oshie

Richard Panik – Lars Eller – Daniel Sprong

Carl Hagelin – Nic Dowd – Garnet Hathaway

Brian Pinho

It’s not quite “post-free agency,” as there will still be changes made to the roster, but for now, here is what the team will probably look like.

Unless new coach Peter Laviolette decides to shake up the top two lines, those aren’t changing. Even if it’s shuffled a bit, those top six forwards are pretty much set in stone.

Lars Eller is locked in as the 3C, and Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway will presumably hold on to their fourth line roles, but the other three winger slots are still up in the air. At this point in his career, Carl Hagelin is probably better suited in a fourth line role, but Richard Panik seemed to fit better on the fourth line as well. Barring a trade, one of them will need to play on the third line, and my gut pick is Panik at this point. He improved as the season went on after a rough start.

I have Sprong on the other third line wing because I don’t see any other options currently in-house. Again, a trade acquisition or new signing could change the situation entirely, but at this point, I think Sprong will have every opportunity to earn the spot in training camp. I have Pinho as the extra forward simply because he passed Boyd in the pecking order in the bubble, but we have no clue who Laviolette will favor, and once the team gets under the cap, it could just as likely be an outside candidate. We’ll have to wait until camp.

Defensemen:

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov – Justin Schultz

Jonas Siegenthaler – Trevor van Riemsdyk

Martin Fehervary

Michal Kempny will be on longterm injured reserve, so he’ll be out of the picture for a good chunk of the season. Jensen could sensibly stay on as the seventh defenseman rotating in with van Riemsdyk or anyone who misses time with an injury, but Fehervary is an up-and-coming prospect who was NHL-ready last season and forced to wait. The Caps would be ill-advised to hold him back again. The best thing for the team and Fehervary’s development is to make him a full-time NHLer.

Or they will trade Fehervary and keep Jensen, but I would be very surprised. Fehervary has the chance to be a major defensive contributor for the Caps down the road, so he should be favored. His lower cap hit ($791,667 compared to Jensen’s $2.5 million) would also help the Caps tremendously. He showed flashes in the postseason, but clearly needs to adjust to the NHL level.

Siegenthaler still needs to be re-signed, so another possibility is that they let him walk and keep both Jensen and Fehervary, but that seems to be another unlikely scenario, as Siegenthaler is another young blueliner with upside and a low price tag. MacLellan has all but assured Siegenthaler will be re-signed. A trade is coming, we just have to wait and see who it involves.

Goaltenders:

Ilya Samsonov

Henrik Lundqvist

Not much else to say about this that I didn’t already cover at the top. Samsonov is the 1A and Hank is the 1B, but the split will likely be closer to 50-50 than what we see with traditional tandems. Vitek Vanecek will be first in line to be elevated if either Samsonov or Lundqvist can’t play.

Cover Photo Credit: NHL Trade Talk

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