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.
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?
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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