The Capitals addressed the team's needs on defense and goaltending in the offseason, but not on the third line. With cap space limited, the team did well to address the more pressing needs and a third-line winger just was not general manager Brian MacLellan's biggest priority. Having said that, someone has to play there. So what are Washington's options now?
The Caps may not have to look outside of the organization at all if it has faith in a player to step into the third-line role.
Washington originally signed Richard Panik in 2019 to fill this exact hole on the roster. He struggled for much of his first season with the Caps, but with a year under his belt, time to adjust to his new surroundings and a new head coach, perhaps Panik will get another opportunity to win the job. Otherwise, that will mean either moving the player or burying him and his $2.75 million cap hit on the fourth line.
Acquired at the trade deadline, prospect forward Daniel Sprong looks like a lock to make the NHL roster this season. The question is whether he will be on the third line, fourth line or the 13th forward? Unlike some prospects where you don't know if his talents will translate to the NHL, we've already seen that Sprong's can. In the 2018-19 season, Sprong scored 14 goals in 47 games with the Anaheim Ducks.
Coaches have an aversion to playing one-dimensional offensive players in the bottom-six and Sprong is not particularly strong defensively, but Washington should not lose sight of why they are looking for a third-line wing in the first place. The team has not been able to get enough depth scoring. So do they get a two-way forward with much lower offensive upside because maybe he can play on the penalty kill or is the team actually interested in solving the problem of depth scoring? If it is the latter, Sprong should be a definite candidate -- and, for what it's worth, my top pick -- to play on the third line.
Before we can even talk about external candidates, it is worth noting that Washington won't be able to add anyone of note without moving salary first. Using Cap Friendly's armchair GM tool, here is a look at the team's cap situation:
This is with 11 forward, seven defensemen, two goalies and Michal Kempny on long-term injured reserve. Most teams want at least one extra forward on the roster meaning Washington is two short. With less than $1,5 million of cap space remaining, the team could only afford to add two players at just barely over the league minimum salary. You are not going to get any notable free agents at an amount that will still give the team enough room to bring in a 13th forward.
But that doesn't mean you won't be able to get them cheap.
If the team is able to move some cap space, suddenly some free agents look like intriguing options.
Conor Sheary is 28 years old and has scored double-digit goals in his career every season but his rookie year. Andreas Athanasiou is 26, incredibly fast and just one season removed from a 30-goal season with the Detroit Red Wings. Melker Karlsson, 30, does not have the type of production you would want to see if you believe scoring is the main focus for the team's third-line needs. If you want a player who checks a few more boxes, however, Karlsson is a right-shot center. As a right shot, Karlsson could find comfort moving to the right and remaining on his forehand. He would also give the team a bit more center depth, something that was clearly lacking in the playoffs when the team looked completely lost down the middle without Nicklas Backstrom
Anthony Duclair is one of the more high-profile players still available, but I do not see him as a realistic option. He's worth mentioning considering he is coming off a 23-goal season and had seemingly a career resurgence in Ottawa. Yet, as a restricted free agent, the Senators elected not to qualify him after he reportedly rejected a two-year deal worth $3 million per season. Ottawa is a bad team and, per Cap Friendly, still has $12.5 million left in cap space for next season. The fact they could not find a way to re-sign him and thought they were far enough apart that they would not even qualify him means one of two things. Either he told Ottawa he wasn't coming back, or his asking price was far higher than anything Washington will be able to afford.
As noted above, I believe the Caps ultimately need to make a trade to clear cap room and that movable piece is probably going to come from the blue line.
Darren Dreger reported in October that the Calgary Flames are interested in looking to add an experienced right defenseman. The Caps currently have five. The most likely trade candidate would be Nick Jensen considering the other four are John Carlson and three players the Caps all signed this offseason (Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Paul LaDue).
According to Cap Friendly, the Flames have just over $1 million in cap space, not enough to fit Jensen's full $2.5 million cap hit. He also has three years left on his contract which is a steep price for a team seemingly just in the market for depth on the right side.
Calgary is a team trying to win now, but if you are looking for right defensemen with only $1 million of cap space, clearly there has to be someone general manager Brad Treliving has to be willing to part with to make a trade work. Sam Bennett would be the type of player Washington would hope to get in return, but after he scored five goals in 10 postseason games, he's probably not someone Calgary would be willing to move.
The Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils are also two teams lacking serious defensive depth who both also have plenty of cap space. Both teams should be targets to possibly, at the very least, dump a defenseman in order to free up cap space. The one issue is that a clear salary dump always comes at a cost. Both teams would want compensation for getting a deal done, especially Detroit where Steve Yzerman is the general manager and has ice-water in his veins. But that just may be the cost of doing business in the pandemic where cap space is about as valuable a commodity as anything. Just getting another salary off the books from a position in which the Caps have an extra would allow the team to open up its free agent net and try to land another forward to bolster the third line.