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Can the Capitals bring back Carl Hagelin?

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Can the Capitals bring back Carl Hagelin?

Carl Hagelin began his season in Pittsburgh, spent three months in Los Angeles and ended it with the Capitals. Where he will be next year is anyone’s guess. 

The Capitals benefited from the veteran winger’s speed when they acquired him just before the NHL trade deadline. They needed his versatility when T.J. Oshie broke his collar bone in Game 4 of the first-round Stanley Cup playoffs series against the Carolina Hurricanes. And scoring depth on the third line is an admitted primary need for 2019-20 on a team with its top two forward lines locked in place. 

Hagelin and Brett Connolly are both unrestricted free agents and forward Andre Burakovsky is a restricted free agent. A tight salary cap could prevent two - or even all three - from returning. 

“I liked the fact that I got a good look from the coaches,” Hagelin said. “I got to play with good players. I got to play in key situations and I felt comfortable here [in Washington].”

Hagelin played in 20 regular-season games for the Capitals and was on the ice for 14 goals for and just six goals against at even strength. His speed is an asset on the penalty kill even if the overall penalty-kill numbers didn’t change much after his arrival. 

Washington was at 78.6 percent before the Hagelin trade and killed 43-of-54 in the 20 regular-season games he played (79.6 percent). But in 47 minutes, 6 seconds short-handed Hagelin was on the ice for just five goals against and he helped kill 25 of 28 power plays against Carolina in the playoffs. 

"[Hagelin] was a good fit. I thought he fit seamlessly from day one,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Really liked him on the third line, the way we used him, we bumped him up obviously with the Oshie injury. Our PK got a lot better. Fits in well with his teammates. It's a really good fit for us, yes."

Hagelin is coming to the end of a four-year, $16 million contract. He knows how to deal with instability. Hagelin left the New York Rangers in 2015 to sign with the Anaheim Ducks. He lasted just 43 games before they traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where Hagelin won the Stanley Cup – and eliminated the Capitals in the process – twice. 

This year was more chaotic. The Penguins traded Hagelin to the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 14. He missed 20 games there with a sprained knee , but returned for 17 games before the Capitals made a bid on Feb. 21 for a third-round pick and a conditional 2020 draft pick. 

But with the NHL salary cap likely to be around $83 million next season and some overage bonuses due other players, the Capitals might struggle to re-sign Hagelin, Connolly, who scored a career-high 22 goals, and Burakovsky, a restricted free agent due at least $3.25 million if given a qualifying offer. 

Hagelin is 31 on Aug. 23, Connolly turned 27 last week and Burakovsky enters his age 24/25 season after posting the exact same stats – 12 goals, 13 assists – in 20 more games this season than last. There’s an argument to be made for bringing back any of the three - and a few decent ones against - but it’s hard to see more than one returning barring a trade to clear room somewhere else on the roster. 

Hagelin liked it in Pittsburgh, where he remains good friends with former teammate and fellow Swede Patric Hornqvist. But the Penguins lost in the first round, too, and it’s unclear what direction that franchise is going after a disappointing season. 

With plenty of playoff experience and that noted versatility, he should find a home. Whether that’s in Washington remains to be seen, but Hagelin has had too much success over the years to sign with a non-contender. The Capitals, one year after winning the Stanley Cup, still consider themselves one. 

“I think I’ve proven that throughout my career that I’ve been pretty successful whatever line I’ve been put on, especially the second half of the season a lot of the times,” Hagelin said. “And I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of playoff experience, play on good teams, and had a lot of success in the playoffs. That’s why this one stings a little more. I’ve never not made it to the second round. It’s a tough one.”




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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  


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The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The 2019 offseason for the Capitals was always going to revolve around the salary cap. The first domino fell on Friday with the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps received defenseman Radko Gudas in return with the Flyers retaining 30-percent of his $3.35 million cap hit. In total, Washington freed up $3.405 million worth of cap space for next season.

But that was just step one. There is still a lot of work left for general manager Brian MacLellan to do over the summer to fill out a full roster. Just how much easier did his life get on Friday?

With the move, the Caps now have eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for about $69.5 million. Ideally, a team wants 22 players with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies. The salary cap has not yet been officially set, but it is projected to be $83 million. That means the team still needs five forwards and one defenseman and has about $13.5 million worth of cap space to work with.

Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and both will almost certainly be back. That is one forward and one defenseman off the wish list. Vrana will probably come in at about $4 million per year and Djoos at $1 million, giving the team about $8.5 million left for four forwards.

The good news is that the team is pretty much set in the top-six which of course means MacLellan will not need to find a big money player. The Niskanen trade allows the team room for a significant depth forward somewhere in the $4 million range for the third line with enough left over to fill out the remaining depth spots. The bad news is that still leaves the team with some tough choices to make.

Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly are both unrestricted free agents and the team may have enough money for one, but not both. There is also still the question of what to do with Andre Burakovsky. Do you qualify him for $3.25 million? That may not be as tough a pill to swallow at this point, but it is still a significant amount of money to commit to a player with 12 goals in each of the past two seasons. And then there are the team’s other RFAs Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin. MacLellan will have to make a decision on all of those players while still putting together a team with enough depth to compete for the Stanley Cup before the window closes on the Ovechkin era completely.

The Caps lost a good player and locker room presence in Niskanen and now have more cap flexibility as a result, but it does not solve all of the team’s salary cap problems. The team will not be able to add as much offensive depth as perhaps it would have liked and MacLellan will still have to get creative to put together a bottom six formidable enough for a deep Cup run.