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The Capitals need to move salary this offseason. Why that makes defenseman Matt Niskanen a trade target

The Capitals need to move salary this offseason. Why that makes defenseman Matt Niskanen a trade target

The numbers are stark and full of terrors for the Capitals. 

If this coming offseason isn’t like 2017, when Washington had to give away veteran players for draft picks and let other key members of that team leave in free agency, it is close to it. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made that clear last month. 

“Depending on what we decide to do, you might have to create some [salary-space and just go from there,” MacLellan said. 

That’s ominous phrasing, but rooted in reality. And certain players are obvious candidates for a trade. No one better fits that description than defenseman Matt Niskanan. 

This isn’t to say Niskanen deserves to be run out of town. His play was below his standards early in the season, but he insists he got closer to his normal level by season’s end. 

“I would say the first 50 games overall not as good as I have played in the past. Certainly better later than early in the year,” Niskanen said. “I think I played closer to my usual level the later the season went on. That was when I was most competitive and best execution and all that good stuff.”

Much like teammate Brooks Orpik, Niskanen helped transform a blueline in disarray when he arrived as a free agent from Pittsburgh in 2014. He’s been a good character in the room. He was a key part of a Stanley Cup team. You look to add players like that, not subtract.  

But Niskanen’s $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the final two years of his contract makes him a target. Just like Orpik’s final year at $5.5 million made him an obvious trade candidate last spring. Not 10 days after the championship parade down Constitution Avenue, Orpik was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. He was brought back to Washington after being bought out, but at $1 million plus bonuses. This is a hard business. 

It isn’t always about your play. Niskanen has shown signs of slipping, but he is only entering his age 33 season and has generally stayed healthy. He fills in on the power play, he logs heavy minutes against tough competition and up until last year – the fourth year of his deal- was a positive puck possession player. It’s Washington’s other needs that could make draft weekend on June 21 in Vancouver interesting. 

The Capitals have two third-line wingers – Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly – who are unrestricted free agents. Connolly, 27, is looking for a bigger role and a raise from $1.5 million. Hagelin, who turns 31 in August, is looking for one last solid contract after his four-year, $16 million deal expires. Restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky needs at least a qualifying offer of $3.25 million. Scoring depth is an admitted issue for Washington, according to general manager Brian MacLellan. Losing all three of those players would not help them there. 

The Capitals also need money for a raise for second-line winger Jakub Vrana, who is a restricted free agent and coming off a breakthrough season (24 goals) at age 22. They have one year left for both center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby. Defenseman Christian Djoos is a restricted free agent. They also need to sign a couple of depth forwards and a depth defenseman. 

Add in that Washington acquired defenseman Nick Jensen at the trade deadline from Detroit and immediately signed him to a four-year contract extension for a reasonable price ($2.5 million cap hit) and you now have a ready-made replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair next to Dmitry Orlov.

These tea leaves aren’t difficult to read. This isn’t speculation in a vacuum. The Capitals could certainly keep Niskanen and be happy with their defensive depth, but the trade off is limited money available to keep its wingers on the third line or upgrade at all on the fourth line. Sign Vrana to a $4 million extension and keep Niskanen and there is around $4.5 million-$5 million left to add two third-line wingers, a fourth-line winger, two depth forwards and one depth defenseman, according to the web site CapFriendly.com. There just aren’t enough NHL-ready forwards in the minor-league system to make those numbers work, however.  

MacLellan could also throw a curve ball and trade someone we aren’t thinking about to clear money. But who would that be? Orlov, 27, is younger than Niskanen, but there isn’t a replacement ready on the left side of the second pair. Evgeny Kuznetsov took some heat for his up-and-down play in a 72-point season. But the Capitals spent the better part of half a decade looking for a second center to play with Nicklas Backstrom. 

Where would the expected high-end talent you’d get back in a Kuznetsov trade fit on this roster? You already have Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie and Vrana on the wings. You already have John Carlson as an elite defenseman. And you aren’t trading Kuznetsov for futures (draft picks, prospects). MacLellan always has something up his sleeve at the draft, but this doesn’t seem like a team that needs a bombshell trade. Not yet. 

And so that leaves Niskanen as the player who makes the most money, has a teammate who could replace him under contract and who would clear enough cash to maybe squeeze two of Hagelin, Connolly and Burakovsky back on the roster for scoring depth – or other free agents who would fit those roles.

It isn’t fair. But that’s the business side of the NHL. Given his age, track record, championship experience and just two years to go on the original seven-year contract, Niskanen would be a fit on a lot of NHL teams. It just might not be with the Capitals anymore.

 

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Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s semifinal matchup:

Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

2018-19 stats

Joonas Donskoi (27 years old): 80 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 14 goals, 23 assists, 37 points, 13:25 TOI

Playoffs: 12 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 12:26 TOI

Carl Gunnarsson (32 years old): 25 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points, 15:15 TOI

Playoffs: 19 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 14:57 TOI, won Stanley Cup

Hockey-Graph contract projections 

Joonas Donskoi: 3 years, $2,847,521 cap hit

Carl Gunnarsson: 1 year, $731,159 cap hit

The case for Joonas Donskoi

Maybe Andre Burakovsky’s qualifying offer of $3.25 million means he’s back with the Capitals for another year. But it doesn’t preclude a trade and in Donskoi you’d have a similar option at a cheaper price, which matters if you only have $9.2 million in cap space left for now.

Donskoi made the offense better in San Jose in whatever role he was asked to play. He can go up and down the lineup and had a consistency to his game that Burakovsky at times lacks. Donskoi’s stats may not always reflect that, but making his teammates around him better is a valuable asset. Either way, depth scoring is important and a priority for the Capitals. 

Donskoi has every bit the Stanley Cup playoff experience as Burakovsky does if that matters to you. Donskoi has nine goals and 12 assists in 50 playoff games and Burakovsky has nine goals and nine assists in 56 playoff games. Not much to chose between the team except Donskoi would be cheaper if Washington decided to trade Burakovsky. 

The case for Carl Gunnarsson

The Caps will need a No. 6/7 defenseman after Brooks Orpik retired on Tuesday. Yes, they gave a qualifying offer to RFA defenseman Christian Djoos and they have Jonas Siegenthaler under contract, too. Both are natural left side defensemen. Going with the kids is an option. But both of them? That becomes problematic when someone gets hurt in your top two pairings and players have to bump up. 

Gunnarsson was the hero of the “Boston Pee Party” when he scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final after declaring to head coach Craig Berube at the urinal he just needed one more opportunity. Gunnarsson had just seven points in the regular season so no one should expect a ton of offense, but the point is he delivered when it mattered most.

When he is not playing the overtime hero, he is a third-pairing, stay at home defenseman who can play on the penalty kill which is pretty much exactly what the Caps need in a depth defenseman.

Take a look at Gunnarsson’s contract projection. You can’t beat that price. Sure, those projections came out before he won the Stanley Cup, but even if his price goes up, it will not be significant. You’re tinkering at the margins of the roster here and championship experience matters. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here:

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

The Capitals tendered qualifying offers to six of their seven restricted free agents at Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline, including forward Andre Burakovsky. 

Burakovsky, 24, had been the subject of trade rumors up until the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25 and also in the days leading up to last week’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. Nothing came of them. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made it clear that while teams were calling, he wasn’t about to just give away a 2013 first-round draft pick. 

“We like the player. There's been some inconsistencies there, but when he's on his game, he's a good player,” MacLellan said last Thursday. “We'd like to keep him around but obviously his name is out there a little bit, so we do talk to some teams about him. But we're not going to move him unless we get something we're comfortable with back.”

But the Capitals are still in a salary cap crunch and that could still land Burakovsky elsewhere in the coming days. His qualifying offer is $3.25 million. Washington is only $9.235 million below the salary cap of $81.5 million. If Burakovsky signs, he would provide scoring depth. He has a career-high 17 goals and has scored 12 each of the past two seasons.

The Capitals do need to see more from Burakovsky. He has struggled with confidence and consistent production over the years. But if he returns, he would be a good option to replace the expected-to-depart Brett Connolly at right wing on the third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin. Connolly is an unrestricted free agent and likely out of Washington’s price range. 

By tendering a qualifying offer, the Capitals ensure that they will keep Burakovsky’s rights. If they had not then he’d be an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team. That’s not a smart use of an asset that could still help in 2019-20. They could, of course, still trade him at any time. 

Meanwhile, forward Dmitry Jaskin was not tendered a qualifying offer. He is a free agent now. Jaskin never gained the trust of the coaching staff last season. He appeared in just 37 games despite analytics that showed he had a positive impact on the fourth line. Jaskin picked up on waivers from the St. Louis Blues in October, had two goals and four assists. He did not play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Winger Jakub Vrana also received a qualifying offer, but that’s not expected to matter much as the two sides try to put together a long-term contract extension after his breakthrough 24-goal season in his second NHL year. 

The Capitals did tender a qualifying offer to defenseman Christian Djoos. An ugly thigh injury that turned into compartment syndrome and limited him to 45 games. But with Brooks Orpik retiring on Tuesday, Washington could go with Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler as their No. 6/7 defensemen on their natural left sides. 

Fourth-line winger Chandler Stephenson also received his qualifying offer. AHL Hershey forward Colby Williams and goalie Vitek Vanacek also received qualifying offers from Washington.  

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