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Capitals center Nic Dowd celebrates his second-period goal that proved to be the difference in Washington's 2-1 win over Montreal at Capital One Arena on Thursday night. The victory secured a Metropolitan Division title for the Capitals. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys ** Usable by LA, BS, CT, DP, FL, HC, MC, OS, SD, CGT and CCT **
Capitals center Nic Dowd celebrates his second-period goal that proved to be the difference in Washington's 2-1 win over Montreal at Capital One Arena on Thursday night. The victory secured a Metropolitan Division title for the Capitals. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys ** Usable by LA, BS, CT, DP, FL, HC, MC, OS, SD, CGT and CCT ** (Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post)

Just hours before the first playoff game of his NHL career, center Nic Dowd has inked a deal to remain with the Washington Capitals for the next three seasons. Dowd's extension, which carries a salary-cap hit of $750,000, is a reward for what's been a career year with eight goals and 14 assists in 64 games.

Washington signed Dowd this summer to a league-minimum $650,000 contract for one season as a potential replacement for Jay Beagle at fourth-line center. Dowd scored just three goals and one assist in 56 games with Los Angeles and Vancouver last year, and he had to beat out Travis Boyd for regular playing time on the fourth line, which he eventually did.

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This extension symbolizes a commitment to Dowd in that role going forward, and the Capitals are now poised to bring back all four of their centers next season. Nicklas Backstrom will be entering the last year on his deal, while Evgeny Kuznetsov has six seasons remaining and Lars Eller has four.

Coming off a franchise-first Stanley Cup , general manager Brian MacLellan returned a near-identical roster going into this season, and before that defense of the championship has even begun with the start of the playoffs Thursday, Washington is well on its way to doing the same going into next season.

The Capitals now have just three pending unrestricted free agents on its roster: forwards Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly and defenseman Brooks Orpik . While this is expected to be Orpik's final season with the team - he's 38 years old and has acknowledged that he's "year to year" at this stage in his career — Washington is believed to have interest in re-signing both Connolly and Hagelin, although they may not be able to afford both. Connolly had a career season with 22 goals, while Hagelin, a trade-deadline addition, has proven to be an excellent fit in a short period of time — versatile, speedy and already the team's top penalty killer.

The NHL salary cap is expected to rise to $83 million next season, but because of bonuses paid out to Orpik ($500,000 for playing at least 40 games) and forward Jakub Vrana ($600,000 for hitting three different incentive marks in his entry-level contract), according to CapFriendly.com, the Capitals will have some overage on this year's salary cap that will come off the top of next season's, believed to be roughly $1 million. Vrana is a pending restricted free agent who is due for a raise after scoring a career-high 23 goals with 24 assists, and Washington will have to decide if it wants to retain the rights of fellow pending RFAs Chandler Stephenson, Andre Burakovsky and Dmitrij Jaskin and Christian Djoos.

MacLellan has traditionally avoided awarding contracts longer than one or two years to fourth-liners, but with a team-friendly deal that keeps Dowd at roughly the league-minimum salary, there's essentially no risk for the Capitals. If Dowd's play continues to improve, he's a bargain, but if things go poorly, Washington could bury the entire cap hit in the minors by waiving him. Dowd logged the fourth-most shorthanded ice time among Capitals forwards, and he was first on the team in faceoff percentage among players with at least 100 draws taken (51.9 percent).

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