June 23, 2017

Free agent decisions loom large for Caps as trade deadline approaches

Mike Green during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mike Green during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

As the teams return from the All-Star Break and meaningful hockey starts again, the next big day on the NHL calendar is the trade deadline.

The NHL trade deadline is on March 2 at 3 pm, just over a month away. The task for each team over the next few weeks is to determine what their realistic goals are for this season and going forward so that they can determine if they will be buyers or sellers at the deadline.

On an individual level, general managers need to determine the future of their pending free agents, i.e. who they will seek to re-sign and who already has one foot out of the door.

The Washington Capitals are no exception. There are currently 10 players on the roster who are in the final year of their contract and General Manager Brian MacLellan has to determine now who he wants to see back in Washington next season.

Let’s look at all 10 free agents and determine who will be back, who will be gone and who may be trade bait (all numbers according to nhlnumbers.com):

Braden Holtby, RFA

2014-15 cap hit: $1.850 million

The Caps have finally found their starting goalie and they are not going to let him go anywhere. Add in the fact that he is a restricted free agent and that should leave no doubt that he will be back next season. Signing him will be the team’s top priority this offseason.

Chances he is back in Washington: 99.9%

Evgeny Kuznetsov, RFA

2014-15 cap hit: $2.825 million

Drafted in 2010, everyone waited with bated breath for the young Russian to finally come to the NHL and he offered a glimpse of his immense potential in his debut in 2014. He is still adjusting to the NHL game, but this guy has the talent to easily be a top six center if not top line. The only question here is money. Kuznetsov was making nearly $4 million annually in the KHL. He’s not going to sign for chump change, but the Caps will be hesitant to commit that much money to a player who has yet to show his full potential. If he doesn’t like what he’s seeing during contract talks, he could potentially seek an offer sheet as a restricted free agent, but those situations are pretty rare. Really, there’s not much to worry about here.

Chances he is back in Washington: Almost guaranteed

Marcus Johansson, RFA

2014-15 cap hit: $2 million

 Johansson has certainly rebounded from a lackluster 2013-14 with 13 goals and 14 assists in the first 46 games of the season. He also provides some roster flexibility as a natural center turned wing. In terms of potential, however, it’s beginning to look like this is it, a second or third line player capable of generating points when he is not completely passive. As strong as the Caps are on the right wing, however, they do not have a lot of options of the left which means he still has some value for the team. If the price is right ($3 million per year, he’s not worth more than that), then he could be back.

 As an RFA, however, Johansson is an intriguing option at the trade deadline. He lacks a truly defined role in Washington and if he and MacLellan don’t see eye to eye on contract number, the GM may decide to cut bait. Johansson would not be a rental player given his RFA status and that would up his potential trade value. Having said that, if the Caps are serious about a playoff run, they don’t have enough flexibility on the left to let Johansson go. They need to keep him for the remainder of this season and his RFA status will likely keep him here beyond that.

Chances he is back in Washington: Very likely

Mike Green, UFA

2014-15 cap hit: $6.083 million

Green is perhaps the most interesting pending free agent on the Caps. With 27 points, Green is on pace for the most points he has registered since the 2009-10 season, the last time he finished as a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. He is playing the best hockey we have seen from him in years.

An annual salary of $6 million per year, however,  is just far too much to spend on a player currently playing on the team’s third defensive pairing. He has expressed his desire to remain in Washington, but the Caps are just not going to be willing to pay what several other teams will. Here, he is on the third pairing. For most other teams, he would step into a top-four role. The question then is how much of a hometown discount would he be willing to take? Given that he is 29 and this will likely be the last big contract of his career, the answer is probably not enough to stay in Washington. 

Obviously a guy like Green would generate a lot of interest at the trade deadline, but MacLellan is not likely to move him. First, Green has a no trade clause on his contract which automatically limits the Caps’ options. Second, the team is in the midst of its own playoff push and Green is playing exceptionally well. Someone will really have to knock MacLellan’s socks off with an offer in order to whisk away Green at the deadline (more than a second round pick as hilariously projected by one Edmonton paper). Most likely, he will remain with the team through this season, but it will be his swan song with the Caps. 

Chances he is back in Washington: Slim 

John Erskine, UFA

2014-15 cap hit: $2 million 

The Caps gave Erskine a $3.925 million contract extension in 2013, an absurdly high number considering he is not good enough to be an everyday player. He is best suited for a Jack Hillen role, a number seven defenseman who doesn’t play everyday but can be added to the lineup occasionally to fill in for injuries. Considering a neck injury has kept Erskine out for the entire season, you now have an overpaid depth defenseman with injury concerns. His time in Washington will expire with his contract. 

Chances he is back in Washington: Zero 

Jack Hillen, UFA

2014-15 cap hit: $700,000 

Being the No. 7 defenseman has to be hard, but Hillen has been the consummate professional. Hillen’s return will depend on what the team believes it can get from Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick and Madison Bowey in the near future. Even without Green, if Orlov is finally healthy and Schmidt, Carrick and Bowey are ready for the NHL, then there simply isn’t enough room for Hillen. 

Chances he is back in Washington: Slim 

Joel Ward, UFA

2014-15 cap hit: $3 million 

It took the former Predator a season to settle in to Washington, but he has been tremendous on the third line ever since. This season even saw him reunited with his former coach Trotz. His numbers are slightly down from last season, but he has not had consistent linemates as he did with Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr last season. MacLellan made it clear by signing Brooks Orpik in thew offseason that he values veteran leadership as well as on-ice ability. Ward’s play the past few seasons as well as his past postseason success will make him someone MacLellan will want to re-sign. Ward, however, is 34-years-old and a $3 million annual salary has always seemed high. Given what the team is paying Orpik and Matt Niskanen, Ward will need to come down from that number to make it worthwhile for the Caps. Just how much will be the sticking point. 

Chances he is back in Washington: Slightly better than 50/50 

Eric Fehr, UFA

2014-15 cap hit: $1.5 million 

Fehr is on pace for a career year and provides the team with a measure of flexibility given he can play center and right wing. He is certainly living up to his $1.5 million salary, but his return will hinge on who else the team can lock down and for how much. Fehr is not a priority behind players like Holtby, Ward and even Jay Beagle. Give what he has contributed this season and at what price, there will be definte interest in re-signing him, but it would also be fair to label him as expendable. 

Chances he is back in Washington: 50/50 

Jay Beagle, UFA

2014-15 cap hit: $900,000 

Beagle is flourishing under Trotz and already has beaten his career high in goals this season with seven. He is everything you want in a third or fourth line player and the team will look for him to return so long as they can get him at  a modest raise. 

Chances he is back in Washington: Very likely 

Aaron Volpatti, UFA

2014-15 cap hit: $575,000 

The Caps snagged Volpatti when the Vancouver Canucks placed him on waivers in 2013 in a move that to this day makes little sense. Given that he currently sits on long term injury reserve despite being healthy and hasn’t played in a single game this season, the chances he is re-signed are pretty much zilch.

Chances he is back in Washington: Zero

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He also is a college football and NHL blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com and has a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University. Regan follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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