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Could Nathan Walker be a fourth-line option for the cash-strapped Capitals next season?

USA Today Sports

Could Nathan Walker be a fourth-line option for the cash-strapped Capitals next season?

HERSHEY, Pa. – Forward Nathan Walker came to the podium missing a tooth and with a busted lip, evidence of the high-stick he took in Tuesday’s playoff game between the Hershey Bears and Charlotte Checkers. The penalty drew a double-minor and Walker, who plays on Hershey’s power play, was right back on the ice after the team trainer managed to stop the bleeding.

“It's the playoffs,” Walker said. “I would do anything for anyone in that room, I'd play for anyone. At the end of the day, we all want to win and I think in order for everyone to win on this team, we all have to buy in, which everyone is. It's just the way it is. You get high-sticked, who cares? You're going to go back out there and play.”

Walker plays the game with the same sort of persistence and tenaciousness as he showed by getting back onto the ice. He is relentless around the puck, battling with any player who stands between him and gaining possession. Though not the Bears’ best offensive player by any means, there never seemed to be a moment that Charlotte could let its guard down when Walker was on the ice because of his sheer determination to battle for and win the puck.

That determination was rewarded as he scored the Bears’ only goal of the game. He battled for position in the front of the net and got his stick down on the ice to redirect a pass.

“He's a gritty player, gets high-sticked, he's bleeding everywhere and he's right back out there, scores a big goal for us to get up in that period,” Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery said. “So yeah, those are the things that are his identity and what he does.”

Those type of qualities seem well-suited for a fourth-line role in the NHL and the Capitals may just be in the market for a fourth-line player this offseason given the team’s salary cap constraints.

With Carl Hagelin, Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly becoming unrestricted free agents and Andre Burakovsky, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin all restricted free agents, there is going to be roster turnover in the summer. Washington does not have the money to keep all of those players, but still must find a way to replace them all for next season. A player like Walker could be a cheap alternative to add to the fourth line.

There are some possible issues, however, the most obvious of which is the fact that Walker is set to become a UFA and may not even be with the Capitals organization next season. Riley Barber is also set to become a UFA and is not shy about the fact that he is ready to move on from an organization that he feels has given him little chance to prove himself at the NHL level. After six seasons in Hershey with only 11 total NHL games during that time, you could see Walker perhaps harboring the same feelings.

“I think if you're going to ask any hockey player in the world if they're not playing in the NHL, obviously you want to be,” Walker said. “That's where everyone wants to be. It is what it is.”

When asked, however, Walker indicated he was happy with the organization and would be open to re-signing with Washington.

“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “They've always been good to me and I've found a second home [in Hershey] pretty much. This is my sixth year with the organization now. They've treated me well.”

There are certainly some physical limitations Washington would have to consider before giving Walker an NHL role. At only 5 feet 8 inches and 179 pounds, Walker is very undersized. His style of play can also get him into trouble as he can get caught out of position chasing the puck leading to defensive breakdowns or forced penalties.

If the Caps re-sign Walker, with so many questions about his game he would certainly have to earn his spot on the NHL roster. But the salary cap being what it is, Washington is going to have to find cheap options to bolster its lineup. Based on how he looked in the AHL this season, the Caps could do worse than a player like Walker.


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Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

NBC Sports Washington

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.