Capitals defenseman Christian Djoos and forward Chandler Stephenson filed for salary arbitration before the 5 p.m. NHL deadline on Friday. What comes next for the two young depth players?
Djoos is an interesting case. He had a base salary of $650,000 on a two-year deal that just expired. The Capitals tendered him a qualifying offer of $715,000 last month to keep his rights. He could have simply signed that, but agent Jason Davidson steered him toward arbitration, where a firm deadline could lead toward more money or maybe a multi-year extension.
Djoos, 24, held a place in the Washington lineup early in the season until a hit to his thigh in a Dec. 11 game against Detroit turned into compartment syndrome, a sometimes dangerous complication where blood becomes trapped in the muscle.
He missed 24 games, but returned Feb. 9 and finished the season. Djoos appeared in three Stanley Cup playoff games – though he never really looked the same as he tried to come back from that traumatic injury. He played in 16 of the final 27 games and was a healthy scratch 11 times.
Djoos played in 63 games in 2017-18 and in 22 of 24 postseason games when Washington won the Stanley Cup. He turns 25 on Aug. 6. The thought is Djoos will compete with Jonas Siegenthaler as the primary left defenseman on the third pair given Brooks Orpik’s retirement. Often times the past two seasons he played on the right side.
Djoos had a goal and nine assists this past season in his 45 games, none in the three playoff games with 7:24 of ice time against Caroline in the first-round series.
Players had until 5 p.m. on Friday to make written request to the NHL that they were filing for arbitration. Djoos qualifies because his entry-level contract expired in 2017. He avoided arbitration that year by signing a two-year, $1.3 million deal with an average annual salary of $650,000.
The two sides could come to a similar agreement before an arbitration hearing later this month or early August in Toronto in front of a neutral arbitrator. That happened in 40 of 44 cases last summer and all 30 the year before.
That’s because in part these things can get testy. They aren’t fun for the player or management. Djoos’ is the more likely bet of the two RFAs to get another two-year contract extension given his experience and that he looked like he’d improved his game before the Dec. 11 injury.
Washington has a settled blueline with John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas, acquired in the Matt Niskanen trade last month, all under contract on the right side. Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler, entering his second season after playing 26 NHL games last year, are likely to compete for the final spot on that third pairing’s left side behind Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov. But both should see ice time throughout the season.
Stephenson, meanwhile, is in a different bind. He struggled to maintain the coaching staff’s trust last season as a member of an up-and-down fourth line. Center Nic Dowd earned a contract extension. But Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Devante Smith-Pelly all struggled to grab and hold a permanent spot on the wings. The Capitals then signed free agents Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic to fill fourth-line roles.
So it looks like they’ve decided to upgrade that area. They didn’t pay Hathaway $1.5 million to scratch him. He’s a right wing, but the message was sent: The fourth line needs to be better. Leipsic is a left wing who will make $700,000. That's cheaper than Stephenson's qualifying offer of $715,000 and at this point every last dollar matters to the cap-strapped Capitals.
Stephenson, who turns 25 on Aug. 6, had five goals and six assists last season. His ice time rose modestly from 11:52 to 12:07. He was a key member of the penalty-kill unit, but overall that group was a weakness. Only Tom Wilson and Lars Eller among forwards skated more than Stephenson (113:22) on the PK. Yet when he was on the ice the Capitals gave up just 11 power-play goals and had a short-handed one.
Stephenson somehow didn’t commit a single penalty all season, which is…good? Hard to tell if that’s a super disciplined player or one just not mixing it up enough. He only had eight PIMS the year before, though, so let’s call that a good thing.
Stephenson played 64 games for Washington, but was a healthy scratch 11 of the final 19 regular-season games to give you an indication of where the coaching staff was with him. But he had 67 games in 2017-18 and made contributions during the Stanley Cup run with two goals and five assists playing in all 24 games. He earned his name on the Cup. His speed is also an asset on an older team that needs all it can get.
But it was frustrating Stephenson didn’t carve a bigger role for himself after showing promise in the playoffs the year before and it’s not a good sign that the Caps both brought in two fourth-line wingers and that the salary-cap likely dictates they can only keep 13 forwards.
Contract or not, Stephenson will need a solid training camp to make the roster. Washington finding a little more money to keep two extra forwards and reach the maximum of 23 players would help, but doesn’t seem likely for now.
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