Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.
On Saturday, the NHL’s free agent market will officially open for business and the annual spending frenzy will begin. It’s one of the most intriguing days on the hockey calendar as massive contracts are handed out, big names change teams and pundits weigh in immediately on the winners and losers. If you’re a Caps fan, it’s probably a good idea to head into the weekend with tempered expectations. Because, well, the Caps don’t have much cap space available after you account for the raises due to their restricted free agents. Which brings us to today’s question: Which (if any) unrestricted free agent forwards should Brian MacLellan and Co. target?
Sorenson: The key for the Capitals in this free agent frenzy will be finding a good addition for an affordable price. My first choice would be to re-sign Justin Williams, which would negate any need to go outside the organization to sign a forward. If Williams proves to be too expensive, one name that sticks out to me is Chris VandeVelde from the Philadelphia Flyers. At 30 years old, VandeVelde is hitting his peak in his professional career and carried a cap hit of $725,000 last season. He scored six goals and recorded nine assists in 81 games last season for the Flyers, so his numbers wouldn’t dictate a big raise from his salary last year. Playing in the Capitals offensively gifted system would seemingly put VandeVelde in a spot to produce more points. He averaged 2:30 of shorthanded ice time last year and would prove to be a valuable asset on the penalty kill for Washington. Two more positives: 1) he’s from Minnesota which means he’ll fit in right away, and 2) I love stealing a player away from a division rival!
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Regan: The answer to this question is none. They have more than enough players for the top nine and I would rather plug in Riley Barber or Nathan Walker on the fourth line than sign someone, but okay, I’ll play along. If I am forced to look at free agents, I would give Nail Yakupov a shot. Yes, I know he was the No. 1 overall pick and has been a complete bust, but hear me out. The Caps signed Brett Connolly for cheap last summer in a low-risk move and they found a productive forward. Shift your expectations. Do not look at Yakupov as a No. 1 overall pick. Consider him as a $850,000 player, or whatever he signs for. If you evaluate him like that, you may find real value in him. He is only 23 and there is definite potential there even though he will never live up to being the top pick in the draft. What do you have to lose? If the team is worried about the loss of Justin William’ leadership, I think they could also give Chris Kunitz a look to be a fourth line player and locker room presence. He is an older, less productive version of Williams, but that should also make him cheaper. He would have to be really, really cheap for this move to be worth it, but it’s a possibility worth exploring.
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El-Bashir: Count me in the sit-this-one-out camp. The Caps’ top-six is already set with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Marcus Johansson and RFAs Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. Meanwhile, four spots in the bottom-six already belong to Lars Eller, Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle and Brett Connolly. That leaves two spots and the spare forward job available. Sure, I’d expect the Caps to kick the tires on a few experienced, versatile and inexpensive bottom-six wingers. I went shopping on CapFriendly’s list of UFA forwards, stopped briefly in the Alex Chiasson ailse, shrugged and kept shopping. Sorry, I just don’t see many appealing options. Furthermore, when I consider Washington's cap situation, the team’s desire to get younger and faster and the logjam of forwards in Hershey, I can’t help but wonder if the Caps would be better off filling those spots with prospects and keeping a familiar vet like Paul Carey as the spare. Among the young players hoping for a shot are first rounder Jakub Vrana as well as former draft picks Nathan Walker, Riley Barber, Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd. Can any of those prospects help? To be honest, that’s still unclear. But there’s only one way to find out. And committing precious cap space to a recycled third or fourth line winger (or someone else’s draft bust) instead of using those dollars to go bargain hunting for a defenseman to help mitigate the loss of Nate Schmidt would be a mistake in my opinion.