As the summer approached, it became clear the Capitals were going to be very tight against the salary cap. After losing in the first round of the playoffs, general manager Brian MacLellan was left with the unenviable task of having to somehow address the team’s needs while also shedding salary. Doing so proved expensive, though not in the traditional sense.
Teams have to be careful not to rely too much on free agents. The nature of free agency essentially requires teams to overpay as multiple organizations vie for a player’s services. This is a good way for a team to quickly get into trouble.
But what if you do not have the cap room to getting into a bidding war for free agents? Then you have to offer them something else: Term.
On Monday, that’s what the Caps did as they signed both Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway to four-year deals. This comes just a few weeks after giving Carl Hagelin a four-year deal as well.
In the past, MacLellan has not typically given long-term deals to bottom-six players. Now, Panik, Hathaway, Hagelin—all of whom will play primarily on Washington’s bottom two lines—are all signed through the 2022-23 season.
“In order for us to get that AAV down so we can add depth, I think we pushed up the term a year on probably all three of those contracts,” MacLellan said Monday on a conference call.
Offering those extra years proved huge in those players choosing to sign with Washington.
“It was the best offer I had pretty much from the beginning,” Panik said. “They offered me four years. Nobody else did. That was the main reason. That's why I chose (Washington). I wanted a longer deal and they were willing to do it right away.”
“It's been a dream to play in the NHL and to have a team that agreed to a four-year deal, it shows a lot of faith,” Hathaway said.
Those three players join third-line center Lars Eller who is also under contract through 2022-23.
Though he admitted to having to add an extra year to spread out their cap hits, MacLellan also revealed the team’s lack of offensive depth within the pipeline helped ease the blow.
“We don't have young forwards ready to step in and play third line,” MacLellan said. “There's a bit of a gap in our organization in that area that we were comfortable committing to the four-year term on all three [players].”
Committing too much money to a player can be a gamble, but the same is true for offering too much term even if it comes with a reasonable cap hit. If the bottom six continues to be a weakness for Washington, it will become very difficult to make any adjustments with four roster spots locked up for four years.
MacLellan, however, has proven adept at moving on from the troublesome final years of big contracts.
When he first took over as general manager, MacLellan convinced free agent defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to sign with Washington in part by offering them terms of five and seven years respectively. When the contracts became worrisome for the team, MacLellan traded Orpik to the Colorado Avalanche who bought him out of his final year allowing MacLellan to re-sign him at a more reasonable hit. After a down year for Niskanen, MacLellan traded the last two remaining years of his deal to the Philadelphia Flyers for Radko Gudas who, analytically, had a much better season than Niskanen.
That, however, is a worst-case scenario. If all goes according to plan, the Caps will now have both a more formidable bottom six and a stronger penalty kill locked in for four years.
It’s a gamble and one that MacLellan is betting with time rather than money.
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