Capitals

Free agent targets remain if Caps are looking for bargain deals

Capitals
Alex Galchenyuk

The initial free agent frenzy is over, but that does not mean there are no players of any value left to sign. The Capitals are a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, but very little money to play with and that could mean going bargain shopping is the way to go to bolster the roster.

Let's not forget, the Caps did not sign Conor Sheary until Dec. 22 and Zdeno Chara until Dec. 30 in 2020 so general manager Brian MacLellan is not afraid to sit and wait for the asking price of players to drop.

In all likelihood, I think the roster is set and any holes the team still has will be filled internally. But, if MacLellan were still looking at the free agent market, what would he look for and who is still available?

Left defense would seem to be the priority. As of now, the Caps are replacing Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara with Michal Kempny -- who will be returning from a second major injury as he did not play at all in 2021 -- and Martin Fehervary -- a prospect with six NHL games of experience.

Assistant coach Kevin McCarthy strongly prefers to play players on their shooting side and the Caps have just three left defensemen on the roster with Dmitry Orlov, Kempny and Fehervary (assuming Fehervary makes the NHL roster this season which is likely). That means not only do Kempny and Fehervary look poised for everyday roles, one of them is going to have to play in the top four.

 

A second need would be center depth. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd are a deep center core, but if any of those players get hurt, there's no great solution for how to replace him.

Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas need more time in the AHL to develop, I project Beck Malenstyn to be a winger in the NHL and Brian Pinho is an AHL caliber player. MacLellan has expressed interest in getting Garrett Pilon playing time this season, but he is a player with zero NHL experience and, again, this is a team with Cup aspirations.

What's not an area of need is goalie. That's not a position worth considering after the team traded for Vitek Vanecek back from the Seattle Kraken. With Ilya Samsonov as a restricted free agent, Washington is locked into a Samsonov, Vanecek tandem.

Left defensemen

A quick caveat on left defensemen, if this is a route the Caps want to go, I think it means trading away a defenseman off the roster. If you add Fehervary to the NHL roster, the Caps have seven defensemen and only approximately $2.6 million worth of cap room, not including Samsonov who remains unsigned. Trying to add an eighth defenseman is a luxury the Caps cannot afford.

With that in mind, here are some possible targets:

Zdeno Chara

This is the obvious one. If you need a left defenseman, why not just bring Chara back? He averaged over 18 minutes per game last season, seemed to have good chemistry with Nick Jensen and also played well with Justin Schultz and John Carlson when injuries forced him higher in the lineup. Yes, he seemed to run out of gas a bit in the postseason, but at 44 years old, I think it would be reasonable to play him in fewer games this season to account for that.

The only issue here is that you can't have Chara take playing time away from Fehervary. While he looked good last season, a 44-year-old Chara should not be taking playing time from a 21-year-old Fehervary who the general manager specifically named as being ready for the NHL next season.

Ben Hutton

Hutton has shown he can be decent when not overused so I would not bring him in expecting him to be anything more than a third-pair player. Then again, we are talking about bargain shopping so don't expect to find anyone who will be in contention for the Norris next season.

Hutton is only 28 and entering his prime which is a plus for a team that is already one of the oldest in the NHL. If you can find an addition who is not just a 35+ journeyman, that's a win.

In 2021, Hutton played on a one-year $950,000 contract. This is definitely a guy who, the longer the offseason drags on, the more his NHL career appears in jeopardy. That means I believe he could be signed to a "prove it" type deal for even less than that $950,000 cap hit.

 

If the Caps find themselves in need of someone who can play on the third pair and step into top four minutes as needed, Hutton is not that guy, but he can be a cheap, reliable bottom-pair defenseman.

Luca Sbisa

In terms of defense the analytics are...not great, but there is value to a player like Sbisa for a Caps team that just lost its two biggest players on the blue line.

With no Dillon and no Chara, who is going to push players out of the crease and defend the net front for Washington next year? It's slim pickings. That's a role the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Sbisa can fill, even if he can't do much else.

Center

Alex Galchenyuk

Galchenyuk will probably be out of the Caps' price range, but a player who has gone from being the third-overall draft pick to playing for six NHL teams and is now unsigned while looking for his seventh team, you have to wonder if desperation may make him affordable.

Galchenyuk is young at only 27 and productive. He will never live up to the expectations of where he was drafted, but neither will Brett Connolly, and look how well that worked out for Washington. Seems like he would be worth the risk if the Caps could get him for cheap.

Brad Richardson

We are just two years removed from a 19-goal season for Richardson. Granted, he is now 36 and a player can deteriorate rapidly at that age over the course of two years so no one should expect that kind of season from him going forward. In terms of depth, however, you have to think there is more left in the tank.

No one watched the Caps last season and thought this team needed to add another player in his mid-30s, but as a fifth center who would not be expected to play every night, Richardson is a decent choice and one who could surprise with his production if given a chance. He has produced 11 or more points in three of the last four seasons.

Dominik Kahun

Kahun has 83 points in 186 NHL games, he is a good two-way player and looks like a decent third-line center. Yet, he has been traded twice, was not qualified by Buffalo in 2020, was exposed by Edmonton in the expansion draft but was not taken, and has now been left unqualified again. That's a definite red flag. But if the Caps do their homework on Kahun, this would be a solid signing. Kahun could plug into the third line and even higher in limited minutes when needed. He would not just be a fourth-line stand-in.

Considering the journeyman career Kahun has had already at 26, he may want a solid paycheck and some security (meaning term), but beggars can't be choosers and this is the kind of player who is getting squeezed by the flat cap. At some point, he is going to have to take what's being offered. Why not go for it, if you are the Caps?