On Monday, the news that everyone had already come to accept – including the team’s front office – became official. Brett Connolly is no longer a Washington Capital, after accepting a four-year, $3.5 million offer from the Florida Panthers.
With Washington’s desperate salary cap situation – only $9.25 million under heading into the day according to CapFriendly – there was not much the Capitals could afford in the way of established talent. Still, general manager Brian MacLellan found some off-the-shelf components in the free agency market to patch the hole left behind by Connolly.
Though MacLellan knew the Capitals had little chance of keeping Connolly in the fold – even expressing this publicly – the forward’s departure will be felt dearly in the 2019-20 season as he takes his talents to a division rival.
Last season, missing only one game, Connolly accrued career-highs in nearly every meaningful offensive statistic, including points (46), goals (22), assists (24), and shots on goal (139). He was also responsible for the game-winning goal in five of the Capitals’ wins in 2018-19.
Connolly even performed well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the rest of the bottom-six failed to show up. Though his overall stat line included a plus/minus rating of minus-two, he chipped in two goals in their seven-game loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
As the Capitals stitch together their new lineup and address the lack of offensive depth that cost them a shot at repeating as Stanley Cup champions, Brent Connolly’s loss is a blow to those ambitions.
The New Guy
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan spent the first day of the NHL’s free agency period looking for a replacement for Andre Burakovsky as the third-line winger after trading him on June 28. After a week of discussion, they signed former Arizona Coyotes forward Richard Panik to a four-year, $11 million contract – a $2.75 million cap hit for this year. The Capitals made it clear from the moment they approached him that they would take the chance.
“It was the best offer I had pretty much from the beginning,” said Panik, as quoted by NBC Sports. “I wanted a longer deal, and they were willing to do it right away.”
Panik’s best season as a pro came during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016-17, when he scored 22 goals, 22 assists, and took the ice for all 82 games. While Panik’s numbers tailed off after joining the Coyotes in the middle of the 2017-18 season, he does have one thing that Connolly lacks – physicality. His 137 hits last season would have tied him for fourth-most on the Capitals, an impressive feat considering he was ranked eleventh on the Coyotes in terms of average ice time in 2018-19.
The Capitals are the fifth team Panik has joined since entering the league in the 2009 NHL Draft, a second-round selection by the Tampa Bay Lightning. In addition to Chicago and Arizona, he also spent the 2014-15 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Hathaway and Leipsic
On the same day, the Capitals acquired two unrestricted free agents from the Pacific Division: Garnet Hathaway from the Calgary Flames, who reached a four-year, $6 million deal, and Brendan Leipsic from the Los Angeles Kings, who signed for $700,000 over one year. Each will compete for spots on the fourth line, joining established center Nic Dowd.
Hathaway, despite originally going undrafted out of Brown University, gradually rose through the ranks of the Flames’ organization for five seasons and saw more playing time year-over-year, culminating in a 2018-19 season where he scored a career-high 11 goals and 19 points. Like Panik, he can be physical when he needs to, and has also spent time on the Flames’ penalty kill unit.
Leipsic, however, is more of a late bloomer. Formerly an alternate captain on the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals and Toronto Marlies, he has now joined his sixth NHL team at only 25 years old. Of those teams, the Kings saw the best of Leipsic’s NHL experience so far, as he registered five goals and 13 assists in only 45 games, all of which came last season.
Those five goals represent over a third of his career output of 13 since entering the league in the 2012 NHL Draft, selected by the Nashville Predators in the third round. Leipsic would eventually be drafted a second time – this time by the Vegas Golden Knights during their 2017 expansion draft, as his second team, the Maple Leafs, left him unprotected. Unfortunately, the Knights traded him to Vancouver before he could take part in their Stanley Cup run that year.
After all was said and done on Monday, the Capitals were left $4.285 million under the salary cap, leaving barely enough room to retain the two top free agents left on MacLellan’s list.
Forward Chandler Stephenson and defenseman Christian Djoos have both been handed qualifying offers of $715,000. If taken, that would leave approximately $2.8 million toward re-signing Jakub Vrana, the 23-year-old forward who showed great potential in his third season by scoring a career-high 47 points.
Vrana’s previous contract paid $4.275 million over three years, an average annual value of $1.363 million. It is still uncertain whether Vrana will receive a long-term contract or a one-year bridge deal, assuming he agrees to terms with the Capitals at all.