A series of roster moves over the past two weeks have left the Washington Capitals with one obvious need, and it could be addressed as soon as noon July 1.
“We’re pursuing all the fits we see for a third-line right wing in free agency,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Saturday.
The Capitals dealt 24-year-old forward Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche for second- and third-round picks Friday, ending months of speculation while also accommodating Burakovsky’s request for a more substantial role with a different organization. But while Burakovsky had been a frustrating and inconsistent presence in Washington’s lineup for the past five years, the team doesn’t have an internal replacement to play beside center Lars Eller and left wing Carl Hagelin on a projected third line.
While the Capitals have been aggressive in re-signing their own pending unrestricted free agents, they haven’t pursued a big name on July 1 since signing forward Justin Williams in 2015. Washington was on the hook for a $3.25 million qualifying offer to Burakovsky, so that money can now be allocated toward his replacement. One option is an extension for pending unrestricted free agent Brett Connolly, who scored a career-high 22 goals playing beside Eller last season, but MacLellan didn’t sound optimistic about the team’s chances to retain him.
“We’ve talked to his representatives,” MacLellan said of Connolly. “He’s still exploring his opportunities. I think maybe at some point, he’s probably going to get priced out of our range. It appears to be heading that way.”
The Capitals drafted Burakovsky with their first-round pick in 2013 and after he scored 17 goals with 21 assists in his second full season (2015-16), he suffered a series of injuries over the next two years that caused his production to steadily decline. By the end of the 2017-18 season, forward Jakub Vrana, drafted a year after Burakovsky, passed him in the depth chart, staking claim on a steady top-six role while Burakovsky bounced around the third and fourth lines.
He was a healthy scratch in six games this season, finishing with 12 goals and 13 assists in 76 games, matching his point total from the year before when he played in 20 fewer games.
While MacLellan explored trading Burakovsky during this past season, the GM would’ve wanted a comparable forward in return to replace Burakovsky in the lineup rather than draft picks, so a deal didn’t materialize. MacLellan then had discussions with other teams about Burakovsky during the NHL draft in Vancouver last weekend, but he still wasn’t satisfied with the offers and opted for patience. The deal with Colorado matches what the Capitals got from New Jersey in exchange for forward Marcus Johansson two years ago, when Johansson was coming off a career season with 24 goals.
Burakovsky “wants to play higher, he deserves an opportunity to play higher to show it, but still, we have an organization, we have a team, we put a lot into developing him,” MacLellan said. “I still like him as a player and as a person, but I get where he’s coming from. So I have to try to do the best thing for both parties.”
Said coach Todd Reirden: “We’ve seen some really good things from him in the past, but I think in terms of his overall game, we’ve seen some inconsistency. That’s been a little bit of the bug in the ointment with him — that consistency level night in and night out, being able to play in those top-line roles and being able to produce.”
This time last year, the Capitals were coming off a Stanley Cup championship, and MacLellan’s focus was on keeping as much as the roster together as possible. The only significant losses were backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer and fourth-line center Jay Beagle. But after a first-round exit to the Carolina Hurricanes in May, the team has already traded Burakovsky, as well as defenseman Matt Niskanen (to Philadelphia). Brooks Orpik, an alternate captain the past five years, announced his retirement earlier in the week, and MacLellan indicated that it’s unlikely Washington will re-sign depth forward Devante Smith-Pelly. Along with the expected departure of Connolly, that’s five players from the 2018 title team moving on this summer.
Players the Capitals could target in free agency next week to fill out their third line include Wayne Simmonds, Brandon Tanev, Ryan Dzingel, Joonas Donskoi, Ryan Hartman, Richard Panik and Micheal Ferland. Gustav Nyquist, Mats Zuccarello and Johansson, who played in Washington from 2010 to 2017, could also be attractive options, but they will likely be out of the Capitals’ price range.
MacLellan has said that he wants to improve the fourth line, so he could address that on July 1, too. Washington is also continuing to negotiate with Vrana, a restricted free agent coming off a 47-point campaign who is expected to receive a two- or three-year contract worth slightly south of $4 million a season. The team currently has roughly $9.2 million in salary-cap space, according to CapFriendly.com.
“It’s a tight balancing act of where you think he’s going to end up and what we can spend on the free agent market,” MacLellan said. “The timing doesn’t always work in our favor because the restricted guys seem to go a little longer past the UFA period, so there’s a tricky balance there you have to try to get through.”