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Free agent stock watch: Blues, Sharks have plenty of depth scorers who will hit the market this summer. Any fits for Caps?

Free agent stock watch: Blues, Sharks have plenty of depth scorers who will hit the market this summer. Any fits for Caps?

The offseason continues for Capitals players, but the job never stops for management. While the Caps don’t have much money to work with under the salary cap this summer, general manager Brian MacLellan and staff are still watching the conference finals closely for players who might fit next year’s roster. 

With that in mind, here’s a look at where the free agent “stock” of each pending unrestricted free agent in the Western Conference Final stands now through three games between the Sharks and the Blues. Game 4 is tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Network. 

NOTE: This list includes only UFAs.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

Joe Pavelski, F

Sharks captain isn’t going anywhere. You can’t imagine him playing for another team. He missed six playoff games due to a head injury and received a rousing standing ovation when shown on the scoreboard at the SAP Center. He has four goals and nine assists in 11 playoff games. At age 34 Pavelski is good where he is. Not the player he once was, but a true leader and the heart-and-soul of a San Jose team looking for its first Stanley Cup.  

Stock: Neutral

Joe Thornton, F

The long wait for a Stanley Cup has been brutal for Thornton, now a third-line center at age 39. He’s come so close so many times with the Sharks and this could be his final chance. He's still a force on the ice, though not the dominant offensive player he once was. Thornton has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in the playoffs. He will finish his career with San Jose. 

Stock: Neutral

Gustav Nyquist, F

Nyquist has been a playmaker on the top line at right wing with 10 assists and a goal in 17 games. He produces without a ton of power-play time and had a great regular season after being acquired from the Red Wings at the trade deadline on Feb. 25. Nyquist had a $4.75 million cap hit this season. In line for a raise at age 29, but probably too expensive for the depth scoring Washington needs.   

Stock: Up

Erik Karlsson, D

He will be one of the most sought-after defensemen on the open market after playing the final season of his contract with the Sharks. The long-time Ottawa Senators blueliner still has great offensive gifts at age 28. He showed that again by scoring the controversial overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues. Karlsson has 15 points in 17 Stanley Cup playoff games. The Caps already have their Carlson (John) on the right side so this one is not an option for them. 

Stock: Up

Joonas Donskoi, F

A roller-coaster playoffs for Donskoi, who has scored 14 goals each of the past two seasons and been a fixture in the San Jose lineup for four. He was a healthy scratch the first three games of the first-round series against Vegas but returned to play three games before getting hurt in Game 6. 

Donskoi missed the next five games, but he’s made an impact since returning in Game 5 of the second-round series against Colorado. His one goal this postseason was a huge one. It proved to be the game-winner in Game 7 against the Avalanche. Donskoi has played on the fourth line in every game of the Western Conference Final against St. Louis. Think of him as Washington’s version of Andre Burakovsky. His age (27), experience and versatility should entice teams looking for depth scoring this summer. Maybe the Caps?  

Stock: Up

Tim Heed, D

A depth defenseman who played in 37 NHL games this year and just two in the playoffs. Held his own in minimal ice time at even strength (20:01) and was on the ice for one San Jose goal. Not an impact free agent. At 28 just hoping to find a team in need of depth on the right side. 

Stock: Down

Micheal Haley, F

A rugged fourth-liner whose toughness got him in the lineup early in the Vegas series in the first round. Haley has appeared in nine playoff games. He doesn’t have a point. On his second and probably last go-around with the Sharks. 

Stock: Down

 

ST. LOUIS BLUES

Patrick Maroon, F

A true hometown hero in St. Louis, where he was born, Maroon has three goals and three assists in the playoffs. A big man at 6-foot-3, 227 pounds, Maroon is tough to move from the front of the net. But he’s also 31 and on his fourth NHL team and he’s only topped 20 goals and 40 points once. He does have 63 games worth of playoff experience, though, so he could be a good fit on a third line somewhere. The Capitals probably want more speed than Maroon would provide. They already have enough big bodies (Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin) with more pure skill. Maroon scored the overtime game-winner in Game 7 of the second round series vs. Dallas, but it’s unclear he can get more than the one-year, $1.75 million deal he signed with the Blues last summer.

Carl Gunnarsson, D

Injuries limited Gunnarsson to just 25 games during the regular season. He has appeared in nine playoff games, but his time in St. Louis appears to be dwindling after five seasons. Gunnarsson played the final two games of the first-round series against Winnipeg and all seven games against Dallas in the second round before getting hurt in Game 7. He returns tonight against San Jose in Game 4 in place of the injured Vince Dunn. At best the Swede is a cheap depth defenseman this offseason at age 32.   

Stock: Down

Chris Thorburn, F

Tough year for a 13-year NHL veteran who played one game for the Blues and then was dispatched to the AHL for the rest of the season. He was recalled for the playoffs but has yet to appear in a game. Soon to be 36, his career is likely over. 

Stock: Down

Michael Del Zotto, D

Split 42 games between Vancouver, Anaheim and the Blues this season, but has not appeared in a playoff game. St. Louis picked up Del Zotto at the trade deadline on Feb. 25 for depth they haven’t needed. He turns 29 next month so he should still garner some interest in a similar role, but after signing consecutive two-year deals with Philadelphia and then Vancouver he likely won’t get much more than a one-year minimum deal. The Caps could probably find a better option if they need a veteran No. 7 defenseman who won’t play much. 

Stock: Down

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap Friendly.com. there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  

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The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The 2019 offseason for the Capitals was always going to revolve around the salary cap. The first domino fell on Friday with the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps received defenseman Radko Gudas in return with the Flyers retaining 30-percent of his $3.35 million cap hit. In total, Washington freed up $3.405 million worth of cap space for next season.

But that was just step one. There is still a lot of work left for general manager Brian MacLellan to do over the summer to fill out a full roster. Just how much easier did his life get on Friday?

With the move, the Caps now have eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for about $69.5 million. Ideally, a team wants 22 players with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies. The salary cap has not yet been officially set, but it is projected to be $83 million. That means the team still needs five forwards and one defenseman and has about $13.5 million worth of cap space to work with.

Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and both will almost certainly be back. That is one forward and one defenseman off the wish list. Vrana will probably come in at about $4 million per year and Djoos at $1 million, giving the team about $8.5 million left for four forwards.

The good news is that the team is pretty much set in the top-six which of course means MacLellan will not need to find a big money player. The Niskanen trade allows the team room for a significant depth forward somewhere in the $4 million range for the third line with enough left over to fill out the remaining depth spots. The bad news is that still leaves the team with some tough choices to make.

Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly are both unrestricted free agents and the team may have enough money for one, but not both. There is also still the question of what to do with Andre Burakovsky. Do you qualify him for $3.25 million? That may not be as tough a pill to swallow at this point, but it is still a significant amount of money to commit to a player with 12 goals in each of the past two seasons. And then there are the team’s other RFAs Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin. MacLellan will have to make a decision on all of those players while still putting together a team with enough depth to compete for the Stanley Cup before the window closes on the Ovechkin era completely.

The Caps lost a good player and locker room presence in Niskanen and now have more cap flexibility as a result, but it does not solve all of the team’s salary cap problems. The team will not be able to add as much offensive depth as perhaps it would have liked and MacLellan will still have to get creative to put together a bottom six formidable enough for a deep Cup run.

 

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