For weeks, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has talked about the team’s need to find a top-six forward to either play alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom or to bolster a second line that could include young skill players Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson. Names such as
Patrick Sharp, T.J. Oshie, Radim Vrbata and Kyle Okposo have been mentioned as viable candidates to fill that role via trade, but given the realities of the salary cap and its potential restrictions, Washington may have to set its sites a little lower.
The bad news, of course, is that bringing in a player not perceived to be the caliber of those who have been mentioned as popular targets would not make the fan base happy. On the other hand, some players who might be worth taking a chance on and who have the potential of providing exactly what the Caps need have become available on the eve of the NHL’s annual free agent frenzy. Keep in mind that the team also needs to sign a depth defenseman, preferably a solid veteran, to compete for minutes as part of a third pairing with Dmitry Orlov and/or Nate Schmidt.
Initially MacLellan spoke of not being able to find what the team seeks at forward via free agency: “I think it would be a priority for us if we could find a guy who could play there,” he said. “I don’t know that the UFA market is going to provide that for us. We’ll see what happens in the trade market here coming up. Otherwise we’re going to have to develop a guy.”
Certainly the Caps are committed this year to developing Kuznetsov, who emerged as a dangerous offensive weapon in the playoffs, and second-year forward Andre Burakovksy, who the team brought along very slowly a year ago and who also played his best hockey in the postseason. If Washington had to live with Burakovsky on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, while a veteran like Troy Brouwer or Jason Chimera rounded out the second unit, on the surface it wouldn’t appear that the Caps were really any weaker offensively than last season.
When MacLellan made his initial comments about finding top-six forward help in free agency it seemed as though his plan was to re-sign UFAs Eric Fehr and Jay Beagle along with RFAs Braden Holtby, Kuznetsov and Johansson. Now that it appears Fehr will be moving on, a little more cap room has been freed up. It’s not enough room to make a run at someone like Phil Kessel via trade, but that little bit of extra space paired with some recent buyouts might allow the Caps to take a more serious look at the UFA market.
Qualifying offers have been made to Kuznetsov and Johansson, and supposedly a sizable long-term deal has been proposed to Holtby. Based on various estimates Washington should have between $18 and $20 million available under the cap after Beagle signed a three-year deal with a $1.75 million cap hit yesterday. For the sake of this post we will split the difference and say that the Caps have $19 million left. It seems to be a reasonable assumption that the team can ink the three RFAs for in the neighborhood of $12 million, which would leave about $7 million to use on a top-six forward – either via trade or free agency – and a depth defenseman.
UFA Tim Gleason, who finished last season with the Caps after being acquired at the trade deadline, is still a possibility to return after making $1.2 million last year. If Washington doesn’t sign Gleason, the Caps likely will bring in someone of similar value and experience to fill that role – possibly at about $1.5 million – so we’re going to assume that they have about $5.5 million to use on a forward.
So what are Washington’s realistic options with $5.5 million or so available to pursue a top-six forward?
Option 1 – The Trade Market
Trade possibilities continue to include Sharp, Oshie and Vrbata. Kessel is out of the team’s price range (unless Toronto will eat some salary), and it appears likely that someone like Jordan Eberle is as well. Okposo reportedly is off the market.
“There were a couple of opportunities that were discussed and might still be ongoing,” MacLellan told reporters after the recent entry draft. “We’ll see what happens over the next few days and weeks. I think there is a lot of talk that went on in general over the past week, and some things happened and some didn’t. And some things are still ongoing.”
Let’s take a look those players who still may be in play:
D.C. has been mentioned as a possible landing spot for Sharp since the trade deadline. Some people feel that at 33 he is in decline and his nearly $6 million-per-year cap hit is not palatable (keep in mind that teams can go over the cap by 10% during the off-season, so he’s still in play for the Caps). While Sharp never really recovered from an injury-plagued beginning to his season and managed just 43 points in 68 games, he is just one year removed from a career-best 78 points, was good enough to make the gold-medal-winning Canadian Olympic Team a year ago and just scored 15 points in 23 playoff games en route to his third Stanley Cup.
Although Sharp’s salary is on the high side, you don’t have to worry about him walking as a UFA after one season, and two years is not a crazy number to commit to a guy of his skill level who will still be just 35 when the deal ends. The larger issue to be concerned about here is what the Blackhawks want in return as they reportedly are looking for a first-round draft pick, a prospect and a top-six potential forward currently on an entry-level deal.
Like Sharp, Oshie has two more years left on his contract – but at $4.5 million per year. And he is just 28. The last two seasons he has recorded 55 and 60 points, respectively, and he has eclipsed the 54-point mark in each of his past three full campaigns. He is a big, strong player with first-line skill as evidenced by his shootout prowess.
Oshie would appear to be a great fit with the Caps, but at what cost? Would they be willing to give up a Johansson, who could test the UFA waters in a year if a longer-term deal can’t be hammered out now, or another younger prospect as part of a deal for Oshie? Or would the Blues be open to taking on a veteran such as Brooks Laich, who basically has the same salary as Oshie?
A highly skilled player who had a very strong season in Vancouver, Vrbata is likely on the market because he only has one year left on his $5 million contract and probably will be looking for a substantial raise or want to test the open market a year from now. Vrbata had a career-best 63 points (31 goals) for Vancouver in 2014-15, but given his contract status and age (34) it would appear unlikely that he would remain in D.C. beyond 2016 if the Caps were to deal for him.
That means they probably can give up less – maybe a lesser prospect and a high draft pick – to get him, but it also means that he would be little more than a rental. If MacLellan thinks Burakovsky can develop into a solid top-six guy with another year under his belt and that another player in the organization such as Stanislav Galiev or Riley Barber also will be ready to step into the lineup in 2016-17, Vrbata could be the way to go.
Option 2– The Free Agents
What was a thin market for free-agent forwards has become a little more interesting in the last week thanks to some last-minute buyouts. “I anticipate not being active right off the hop,” MacLellan said. “I don’t know if we have the money to be able to do that. But we’ll see what goes on the first day. We’re going to monitor the market and see what the levels are at financially and see where we can jump in.”
Here are some possible free-agent fits for the Caps:
Williams has won two cups with the Los Angeles and one with Carolina. He is the all-time NHL leader in career Game 7 goals with seven. He’s a winner. He’s clutch. Oh, and he’s affordable ($3.05 million salary last year). Those are all great reasons to bring him to DC. But even though he’s not “old” at 33, he does seem to be on the downside of his career production-wise, having recorded 43 and 41 points the past two seasons after notching 57 and 59 in his previous two full campaigns. Still, if you’re MacLellan and think you are THISCLOSE to making a serious run at a championship and need a guy like Williams in the locker room, this could be your man. And that’s on top of the mentoring he could provide for the team’s up-and-coming young forwards. Originally I was skeptical, but Williams might be the right fit for the price.
Parenteau recently was bought out by the Canadiens after a subpar season that saw him scratched multiple times. He has played only an average of 55 games the past two years, and he recorded just 22 points for the Habs. Parenteau posted a career-best 67 points for the Islanders in 2011-12, but full seasons in which he has scored just 33 and 22 points since then (he did notch 43 points in 48 games for Colorado in 2012-13) indicate that there are no guarantees if you sign him. If all else fails and you can get him for half of this year’s $4 million salary, he might be worth the gamble.
Beleskey created a stir this postseason by scoring eight goals in 16 games. But he had only one assist. Still, that output on the heels of his breakout 22-goal regular season makes him the “most likely to be overpaid free agent” in my book. Beleskey hasn’t proven himself enough for the Caps to give him serious consideration as a top-six forward for the money he will be demanding. And, honestly, I don’t see him being much different than the glut of third-line-type players they already have.
If nothing else, Frolik is consistent. He has put up 42 points each of the past two seasons in Winnipeg and has scored 16 or more goals in seven of the past eight campaigns. Frolik has good size at 6-2, 192, and is highly skilled, but he also has become a solid two-way player who kills penalties over the past few years. He seems like the type of player who would fit in nicely into the Barry Trotz system, and again for the money you know exactly what you are going to get. For $4 million or less Frolik would not be a bad pickup.
Stafford scored 19 points in 26 games during Winnipeg’s playoff run after being traded from Buffalo last season. At slightly more than $4 million per year with a nice upside he would have been a solid signing for almost any team, however it was just reported earlier today that he has re-signed with the Jets.
Cody Hodgson and Viktor Stalberg
Both of these guys were bought out in recent days – Hodgson by the Sabres and Stalberg by the Predators. Both would be longshots to be key contributors, but if you could get them at a bargain price, their skill and upside might make them worth the risk.
Hodgson had a career-worst six goals and seven assists for Buffalo last year after signing a big six-year contract in 2013. At 25 years old he has four full seasons of NHL experience under his belt and tallied 20 goals and 24 assists during the 2013-14 campaign before falling on hard times. He’s not the veteran-type player the Caps are said to be looking for, but if he does find his game you would be adding another young piece to the team’s under-25 puzzle that includes Johansson, Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, Galiev, Barber and Jakub Vrana.
Stalberg is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL. He’s also got good size at about 6-3, 210. He had two goals and 10 points in 25 games for Nashville last year to go along with 17 points in 20 games at the AHL level. Since signing a four-year, $12 million contract in 2013 he has scored just 10 goals and 25 points in 95 NHL games. Still, his combination of size and speed is rare, and he showed flashes of brilliance during a 22-goal, 43-point season with Chicago in 2011-12. If you can get him at a bargain price or with an incentive-laden contract it might be worth bringing the 29-year-old in for a serious look.
That’s right I said it. Semin was bought out by Carolina today with three years at $7 million per left on his contract. While bringing Semin back to D.C. may seem ridiculous, the fact remains that he possesses top-six skill and his best years were in Washington – including six straight seasons with more than 20 goals, three 30-plus goal campaigns and a 40-goal and 84-point year in 2009-10. Sure he was in and out of the lineup as a healthy scratch and was a minus-10 in Carolina last year, but he averaged 43 points for the two seasons prior and netted 22 goals in 2013-14. Despite his minus-10 this year he was plus-5 during his tenure with the Canes, which means he was plus-15 from 2012-14. Yes, it’s crazy, but he’s only 31 and if all else fails and you can get him for a bargain price, why not?
Option 3 – The Old Guard
Is what’s out there really that much better than Eric Fehr and Joel Ward? Fehr made $1.6 million last year and scored 19 goals. He developed into an effective third-line center who
wins his share of faceoffs and can kill penalties. Fehr has notched 33 and 31 points, respectively, the past two season. He’s 29 and it seems reasonable that you could bring him back for three years at $2.25 per year.
As for Ward, yes he is 34, but he also is coming off his two best offensive seasons (34 and 49 points), was a 24-goal scorer two years ago and has been a clutch playoff performer. He got a later start in the NHL coming out of Canadian college hockey and has less professional mileage on his body than most players his age. Ward can kill penalties and play in front on the power play. He made $3 million a year and says he wants a four-year deal, which seems to be the sticking point with the Caps. How about $3.75 million a year for three years? You like us, we like you. Split the difference and everyone is happy. At those prices the Caps could keep both Fehr and Ward (remember they can go over by the cap slightly in the off-season) and see how quickly the younger forwards mature.
Option 4 – Stand Pat
This does not mean do nothing, but it does mean do the bare minimum and save cap room for a big midseason or deadline deal – maybe for a Kessel or Eberle or another star-caliber player from a team that falls out of the race. You still need to sign a depth defenseman, so do that and maybe take a flyer on a Stalberg or a Hodgson and then let the kids play and develop and see what’s available as the season progresses. This approach will not make Caps’ fans happy, but it could really work out well – one of the free agents could return to form, the young guys could step up to the challenge or a star could be added for the stretch run (or all of the above).
A journalism major from the University of Maryland and a published author, Scott graduated summa cum laude from the Maryland College of Journalism in 1991 before pursuing a career in sports that has spanned almost 30 years and includes 15 years working at the NCAA Division I level in sports information and as an Assistant Athletic Director and nearly 10 years working for baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. Scott also served as
a college beat writer for the Baltimore/Washington sports publication Pressbox and Pressbox Online and currently is the Director of Digital Media for MYHockeyRankings.com. His son Devin was drafted by two U.S. Tier 2 junior hockey teams and currently plays NCAA Division III hockey for Suffolk University in Boston. His daughter Sydney plays college lacrosse for Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania.