Following the Washington Capitals’ latest first-round exit, general manager (GM) Brian MacLellan can’t afford to make any mistakes this offseason. The 63-year-old is under pressure to pick wisely at the NHL Entry Draft and make savvy moves in free agency to improve his roster ahead of the 2022-23 season.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs also heading for a soft reset this summer, MacLellan could find himself signing a handful of players who ended the season at Scotiabank Arena. Here are three Maple Leafs the Capitals could target this summer, including a mixture of restricted (RFA) and unrestricted free agents (UFA).
Rasmus Sandin, Left-Handed Defenceman, RFA
After handing Mark Giordano a two-year contract extension, the Maple Leafs have a logjam on the left side of their defence. As a result, Rasmus Sandin will start next season fourth in his strongest position on Toronto’s depth chart.
The 22-year-old faces stiff competition from Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Giordano, with fellow left-hander T.J. Brodie operating on his off-side. Although GM Kyle Dubas is expected to make alternations to his roster, Sandin’s place in the lineup isn’t guaranteed.
Muzzin’s 10-team no-trade list – and popularity within the organization – decreases the likelihood he’ll be dealt this summer. Rielly and Giordano will also be sticking around as they’ve just signed new deals. Thus, the ever-impressive Sandin could be on the move in the offseason.
The former 29th overall pick is a confident, puck-moving defenceman who has taken significant steps in his development over the past season. He made 51 appearances in 2021-22 and recorded 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) playing on Toronto’s bottom pair.
If not for the knee injury he sustained in March, Sandin would’ve played a key role for the Maple Leafs down the stretch and in the playoffs. He’s a scoring threat of the future with plenty of untapped potential, as his goal versus the Capitals proved:
With Matt Irwin, Michal Kempny, and Justin Schultz set to leave the club this summer, Washington has the cap space and roster room to make a move for Sandin – via offer sheet or sign and trade, so he’s certainly a player to watch.
Ilya Mikheyev, Left Wing, UFA
After watching his squad stall in Round 1 of the playoffs, Peter Laviolette will be keen to rejig his offensive options for next season. Tom Wilson’s injury and Nicklas Backstrom’s chronic hip concerns pave the way for new signings to earn top-six roles in D.C., with Toronto’s Ilya Mikheyev being an intriguing option.
The pending UFA came on leaps and bounds in 2021-22, recording a career-high 32 points (21 goals, 11 assists) in 53 appearances for the Maple Leafs. Mikheyev also demonstrated his ability to play a variety of positions, teaming up with Alexander Kerfoot on the penalty kill to devastating effect.
“He’s one of those guys who wants a larger role,” Keefe said of Mikheyev last season. “That’s a great thing as a coach [because] they’re hungry for more, they’re working for more. I believe in Mickey greatly.”
The 27-year-old has performed admirably for the Maple Leafs and is a quality fit at Scotiabank Arena. However, he’s due a pay rise that Toronto’s capologists will struggle to offer, opening the door to the possibility that he could suit up elsewhere in 2022-23. If the Capitals desire a speedy winger, Mikheyev would be a wise choice.
Ilya Lyubushkin, Right-Handed Defenceman, UFA
Ilya Lyubushkin quickly became a fan-favourite in Leafs Nation following his midseason trade from the Arizona Coyotes. He made 31 regular-season appearances for Toronto, registering six points (two goals, four assists) while moving up and down Keefe’s defensive pairs.
The 28-year-old is a defensive specialist as he is effective when using his 6-foot-2 frame to win net-front battles but unimpressive when the puck is on his stick. The towering Russian is therefore unlikely to earn a significant pay rise from his current $1.35 million cap hit, making him an interesting under-the-radar option for MacLellan’s Capitals.
Alternative Targets on the Toronto Maple Leafs
There are plenty of alternative Washington targets on the Maple Leafs, starting between the pipes with UFA netminder Jack Campbell. After earning $1.65 million per season for the last two campaigns, the 30-year-old is set to claim a significant pay rise and is, therefore, a long shot to re-sign in Toronto.
Campbell experienced an up-and-down season in 2021-22, with his form turning south following his All-Star Weekend appearance. However, his lack of experience as an out-and-out starter and lofty wage demands make him an uncomfortable fit for the Capitals.
Colin Backwell is another UFA worth keeping an eye on. The 29-year-old is a versatile forward who operates with a spring in his step every time he hits the ice.
Although Blackwell is only 5-foot-9, he makes up for it with his sheer determination. He clocked 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 58 appearances for the Maple Leafs and Seattle Kraken last season and is unlikely to be an expensive pick-up for his next club.
Capitals Face Make or Break Offseason
With the level of competition rising in the Eastern Conference, Washington’s front office is under pressure to find value free agent signings this summer. They have plenty of issues to address following another first-round exit, starting with their netminding dilemma.
MacLellan’s job security hinges on his ability to navigate the coming months error-free. If he can thread the needle in the draft and free agency, the Capitals could enjoy a rebound year in 2022-23. It’s time for him to deliver.
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.