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Capitals forward Brett Connolly has a tricky balancing act as he hits unrestricted free agency

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Capitals forward Brett Connolly has a tricky balancing act as he hits unrestricted free agency

ARLINGTON — The question will gnaw at Washington Capitals forward Brett Connolly for weeks: What matters more — fit or money?

There is no doubt that Connolly finally found a home in Washington the past three seasons. His production has increased every year. He is a fixture on the third line. He was a key contributor on a team that won the Stanley Cup and expects to contend for it again. 

All of that matters to a player picked sixth overall in the 2010 NHL draft, who made his debut at age 19 amid heavy expectations, but took six years and three teams to find stability in the league. But Connolly had 22 goals and 46 points this season — both career-highs — and he is an unrestricted free agent. 

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The timing couldn’t be better. Connolly turns 27 on Thursday. He will be paid well this summer on the open market. Certainly he’s due a raise on the two-year, $3 million deal he signed in the summer of 2017. But can the Capitals afford to keep him now? And where on the sliding scale does financial security cross over with a stable home?

“You want to have a fit and honestly, it's a great fit for me here,” Connolly said after breakdown day on Friday.

“I just got to go play and have fun with it, and I really got to grow my game here. There's no question. I owe a lot to the organization, to the fans, to my coaches and, especially, to my teammates. Everyone knows how close of a team we have and how much fun we have. I think that was a big reason for my success.”

In a perfect world, Connolly will find both. He wants to return to Washington. His wife, Katrina, is happy here. He has put himself in position to get a nice contract and remain in a place where he’s found a comfortable role. 

But whether the Capitals have room to match what he might find in free agency is an open question. Connolly is well aware that goalie Braden Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom are free agents after next season. Jakub Vrana — a 24-goal scorer in just his second season — will need a raise in restricted free agency. One thing is clear: Management is realistic about what players will take care of first. 

“I don’t expect hometown discounts. [Players] make what they make,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think at some point there is a tradeoff between ‘I like my situation, my role on the team and my teammates’ and ‘Maybe I can make bigger money elsewhere.’ But for the most part, they want to be compensated for their performance and what they’ve accomplished.”

And that balance isn’t so easy for Connolly to strike. A strong organization is great. Winning is the best. So is ice time, and there’s not really room for him here in Washington’s top-six forward group or on the power play. Maybe there’s another competitive team out there that has a need for a proven offensive player with championship experience, but can offer more money or term. 

It’s not a situation that Connolly foresaw three years ago. The Tampa Bay Lightning, his original team, traded Connolly to the Boston Bruins late in the 2014-15 season for a pair of second-round draft picks. He missed a month with a broken finger before playing 71 games the next year. But the Bruins didn’t give Connolly a qualifying offer and cast him adrift in the summer of 2016. His career had stalled. Doubt crept into his mind. How could it not? 

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Washington needed scoring depth and took a chance on Connolly. That first year under former coach Barry Trotz wasn’t always easy. Connolly averaged just 10:41 of ice time and appeared in 66 games. He was a healthy scratch 14 times. Despite that he scored a career-high 15 goals. That led to another 15 goals and a more stable role on the third line at right wing during the 2018 Stanley Cup season. This year under new coach Todd Reirden his ice time crept to 13:20, and he scored those 22 goals in 81 games. 

Connolly is also producing in a relatively limited role, and that is intriguing. In his three season with the Capitals, he ranks second in goals (52) and fourth in points (96) among all NHL players averaging less than 14 minutes per game.

“So, part of me wants to challenge myself again and take that next step in my development,” Connolly said. “I'm 26, I feel I'm in the prime of my career, my body feels great. There's going to be opportunity out there, I know that. It's just a matter of making a decision for me and for my family — something that fits. If it's here, that's great. Obviously, that would be ideal, but there's also opportunities elsewhere.”

And that will be where the difficulty lies. Washington is reluctant to part with scoring depth like that. But those extensions are on the horizon for Backstrom and Holtby. Vrana will get a new deal, and trade-deadline acquisition Carl Hagelin is a free agent, too. 

MacLellan admits he might have to make some moves to clear cap space, but it’s unclear if even that would be enough to keep Connolly, who said he will soon begin looking at potential suitors with his agents and examine depth charts to see what new teammates he might play with.

Money. Fit. Role. It all matters when looking for a home new or old.   

“I had to prove myself again, and now I'm here after a great year and I'm going to the market, maybe,” Connolly said. “It's crazy how things change in this league, and if you stick with it and keep working, it works out, I guess, sometimes for the guys who [do]. It will be a lot of fun.”

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How to Watch: Maple Leafs at Capitals: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream

How to Watch: Maple Leafs at Capitals: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream

Sitting firmly at third place in their respective divisions, the Capitals and Maple Leafs are both eager to grab another win for themselves in this classic Atlantic vs Metropolitan division matchup. 

Here is everything you need to know about the Wednesday night game, which takes place at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Washington.

CAPITALS vs. MAPLE LEAFS HOW TO WATCH

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals, Game 8 of the 2019-20 NHL Regular Season

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV Channel: The Capitals vs Maple Leafs game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (NBC Sports Washington Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can live stream Capitals vs Maple Leafs on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and on the NBC Sports App.

Radio: Caps 24/7 Radio, 106.7 The Fan FM

CAPITALS VS MAPLE LEAFS TV SCHEDULE

6:00 PM: Caps Faceoff Live

6:30 PM: Caps Pregame Live

7:00 PM: Capitals vs Maple Leafs

9:30 PM: Caps Postgame Live

10:00 PM: D.C. Sports Live

10:30 PM: Caps Overtime Live

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There’s no setback, but just when Michal Kempny will return remains uncertain

There’s no setback, but just when Michal Kempny will return remains uncertain

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Around the time when the Colorado Avalanche scored its fourth goal to take a 4-0 lead on Monday, the Twitter questions started rolling in. “When is Michal Kempny coming back?”

The Caps’ top-pair left defenseman has yet to play this season after tearing his hamstring in March. His loss was a major factor in the team’s first-round defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs and has led to inconsistent defensive play to start the season.

But the Caps’ defense is going to have to figure out how to defend against the star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday without Kempny as head coach Todd Reirden declared after practice on Tuesday that Kempny will not play.

“We're getting close,” Reirden said. “That's at least today's report on him without having spoken to our trainer or team doctor anything right now. I just know that he took another step in terms of visually from me that he is getting closer and closer to game action.”

At the start of training camp, the hope was that Kempny would be able to return for the start of the season. He was not. The team elected not to place him on long-term injured reserve which requires a player to miss 10 games. Now seven games into the season, Kempny’s timetable remains uncertain.

When asked if he was hopeful Kempny could return for Friday’s game against the New York Rangers, Reirden did not sound all that confident.

“I am, yeah. I mean, I'm hopeful every time I walk into the training room.”

For the timeline to keep getting pushed back has raised concerns over whether Kempny has suffered a setback in his recovery, but Reirden insists that is not the case.

“There's not nothing to be concerned about,” he said. “If there was a setback I would let you know. There isn't one. He's going on the path he's supposed to be going on and many other people would have this as a longer-term injury than it already has been so he's doing great.”

Kempny was cleared for contact on Oct. 2. and has been a full participant at practice ever since. Getting him back to a point where the doctors and the team can feel comfortable about getting him into the lineup, however, has proven difficult.

Even after losing four of their first seven games to start the season including all three home games, Reirden says the team is committed to remaining patient and cautious with Kempny’s recovery.

“It's making the choice that's the right thing for our organization and for Michal,” he said. “I think that we've been really happy with the development of this player since we got him and saw the strides he made last year and then we were able to realize how big of a loss he would be when we didn't have him. I think that doing anything now to set him up for anything less than success is not worth it. We have to view the risk versus reward and there won't be any risk, it will be that he is 100-percent cleared, ready to go and ready to play.”