ARLINGTON, Va. – When it comes to the multiple offseason decisions general manager Brian MacLellan has to make, the most important one won’t be whether to re-sign Nicklas Backstrom and/or Braden Holtby, it won’t be whether to bring back Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly or Carl Hagelin. The most important decision MacLellan will make, the player on which everything else the team does this season will be based, will actually be Jakub Vrana.
Vrana, 23, is coming off a career year in which he scored 24 goals and 23 assists, both career highs. He took on a top-six role for much of the season in Washington and is still a few years out from reaching his peak as a player.
He is also a restricted free agent and in need of a raise.
Vrana’s cap hit was a paltry $863,333 last season. He will be due much more than that in his next contract. The question is how much?
When talking about how much roster turnovers he expects next season, MacLellan said, “We’ll have some decisions to make. We’ll find out which direction we’re going on Vrana with a term deal or a bridge deal. Some of it’s money decisions. Some of it’s we need to make a couple changes.”
Notice there was only one player MacLellan named specifically.
The Caps’ salary cap situation this offseason is rather bleak. According to CapFriendly, as of now Washington has eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for a total cap hit of $72.9 million, just over $10 million under the expected salary cap ceiling of $83 million. That gives the team just $10 million to sign five more forwards (four lines of three plus one extra) and one defenseman.
There is no question Vrana will be one of those five forwards. Twenty-goal scorers can be hard to find and for a player to do that at 23 means he has the potential to be something special. Given his talent, his production and the fact that the team still maintains his rights as an RFA, there is no reason to think a deal does not get done.
But how much of that $10 million of cap space will Vrana take?
MacLellan has shown in the past that he is not shy about giving long-term contracts to important players. Long-term contracts are a risk, but for younger players it delays unrestricted free agency for a few years while also (hopefully) making the contract more team friendly with each passing season. That is the philosophy behind deals like Evgeny Kuznetsov ($7.8 million cap hit), Tom Wilson (approximately $5.17 million cap hit) and Dmitry Orlov ($5.1 million cap hit).
That, however, may not work in this case.
While these deals are meant to save the team money in the long-run, in the short-term it means a larger cap hit because the team is essentially buying UFA years. Essentially it would mean giving Vrana a higher cap hit than he may be worth now in the hopes that he will be worth more than that cap hit in a few years.
Washington, however, needs to make every dollar count this offseason which will likely mean giving Vrana a bridge deal instead.
A bridge deal is a short-term deal with a modest raise. The benefit of this to the player is that these contracts expire right as the player is entering his prime allowing him to cash-in on a major deal. Bridge deals save teams money in the short-term, but it could cost them big in the long-run.
Given its cap situation, however, the Caps may have no choice but to give Vrana a bridge deal. That will likely mean giving him a cap hit somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million.
As of Friday at the team’s locker cleanout, Vrana said he had not yet heard anything from the team.
“The season just ended so I really haven’t think about that,” he said. “I didn’t talk to anybody yet so we will see what they going to say and my agent what he’s going to say.”
When those conversations do happen, whatever the number the two sides agree upon, it will determine how much money the team has left for…well, everyone else.
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