It was a close call, but the Tampa Bay Lightning couldn’t quite pull off the threepeat. Jon Cooper’s squad fell to defeat in the Stanley Cup Final, overpowered by a Colorado Avalanche roster hoping to create a “legacy” of its own.
While the season finale was being played out in Denver and Tampa, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan was contemplating his next move. The 63-year-old’s team fell at the first hurdle in the playoffs for the fifth straight year, leaving him with problems to address this offseason.
Washington’s roster isn’t getting any younger, the organisation isn’t awash with top-end prospects, and injuries are a concern heading into 2022-23. Nicklas Backstrom’s future is a major issue: he underwent hip resurfacing surgery last month and faces an extended, and uncertain, recovery process. Tom Wilson will also be unavailable at the start of the season; he has a knee injury to overcome.
As a result, MacLellan must find value in the unrestricted free agent (UFA) market this summer. His squad needs a refresh and there are players from the Lightning that could be the perfect fit in Washington. With that in mind, here are two pending UFAs on with the Lightning that the Capitals should have on their shortlist.
Ondrej Palat, Left Wing, UFA
Signing a player of Ondrej Palat’s quality would be a statement of intent from MacLellan. He ended the 2022 Playoffs with 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 23 games, building on his 49-point haul from the regular season.
The former seventh-round pick is a fan favourite in Tampa and set to make a splash in free agency. At age 31, this offseason is Palat’s final opportunity to sign another big-ticket contract; his next deal is expected to be in the same ballpark as his expiring $5.3 million per season agreement with the Lightning.
Although re-signing Palat is a priority for Tampa Bay, squeezing the Czech star under the salary cap might prove an impossible task. It’s a situation to monitor.
Jan Rutta, Right-Handed Defenceman, UFA
With Justin Schultz likely to depart this summer, the Capitals could look to Jan Rutta as a potential replacement. Despite taking difficult assignments in his stride, the 31-year-old only earned $1.3 million per season on his last contract and is expected to be an affordable target in the offseason.
Born in Pisek, Czechia, Rutta played an important role in Tampa Bay’s back-to-back Cup triumphs and has served the club well since arriving from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018-19. He ended the postseason with an on-ice goals percentage of 57.4, placing him seventh in the metric on Cooper’s roster.
If the Capitals are looking for an experienced replacement for Schultz, moving for Rutta would make a lot of sense. He’s a player to watch on July 13 as a result.
Why Targeting Nick Paul Would’ve Made a Lot of Sense
Following his midseason trade from the Ottawa Senators, Nick Paul stepped up for the Lightning. He was clutch in their first-round series versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring twice in Game 7 to propel Tampa Bay to victory.
All in all, the Canadian was terrific during the playoffs. He notched nine points (five goals, four assists) in 23 appearances and played a huge role in Tampa’s defensive efforts en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
His career record in the NHL isn’t blistering – he has 80 points (34 goals, 46 assists) in 248 regular-season games – but his two-way play and positional versatility would have made him an interesting depth option this offseason.
There is a catch, though. Paul just signed a seven-year extension, in what is a landmark move from the Lightning as they attempt to retool for another run at the Stanley Cup.
Are the Capitals Still Cup Contenders?
That’s the question MacLellan will ultimately answer this offseason. If he commits to signing and acquiring high-end talent, the Capitals will have a chance to contend in a competitive Metropolitan Division in 2022-23. Conversely, Washington will fall by the wayside if the Canadian sits on his hands.
Of the Lightning’s pending UFAs, Rutta is the most intriguing (if he hits the market). He performed well in the playoffs and is a relatively cheap option. However, it’s worth remembering that the Bolts want to keep hold of their market-bound players.
“I’ve already been in touch with all three of their agents and had preliminary discussions over the past 36 hours,” general manager Julien BriseBois said of Palat, Paul, and Rutta after the Cup Final. “I know all three would like to stay here and we’d like to keep them.”
But that might not be possible: the Lightning are facing a cap crunch and will have to make difficult choices this summer, including on Ryan McDonagh’s future with the team. If their pending UFAs hit the market, Washington should act fast.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.