After a busy day of free agency on Monday, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has one last major order of business before training camp: Sign restricted free agent Jakub Vrana.
During his age 22/23 season, Vrana broke through with 24 goals and established himself as a legitimate top-six forward on an aging team that needs its young talent to produce if it wants to continue as a Stanley Cup contender.
Where does that rank this past decade? Since the 2010-11 season, a player who began a year age 22 or younger scored 24 goals or more 95 times. That list is crowded with elite stars like Connor McDavid, Nathan McKinnon, Patrick Kane and Taylor Hall who are beyond Vrana’s scope.
Younger players like Jack Eichel, Sebastian Aho and Auston Matthews, meanwhile, all did it as teenagers. The total list includes 55 different players – and 29 of them had done it multiple times at Vrana’s age.
The point isn’t that he’s at their level. It’s that he’s in some elite company and likely will stay there. Go down that list of 55 players and you will find very few, if any, who were one-hit wonders.
Maybe Columbus’ Boone Jenner? He had 30 goals at age 22 in 2015-16 and hasn’t topped 18 since. Even Milan Lucic, who had 30 goals for Boston in 2010-11, managed four more 20-goal seasons, though he has never again matched that one. Otherwise, that 55-man group has almost universally provided at least steady production.
Given all that, what do the Capitals have to offer Vrana this summer? Washington is tight against the salary cap with about $4.2 million left to add one forward (they’d keep 13 instead of 14) and one defenseman (Christian Djoos has a $715,000 qualifying offer on the table). That would leave around $3.5 million – though there are ways to tweak that cap space.
“We’re in ongoing discussions with [Vrana’s] representatives,” MacLellan said. “We’re pretty close to the cap number. We have a couple of things we can do flexibility wise to create a little space if we need to.”
Aho is a restricted free agent like Vrana and just signed a lucrative offer sheet from the Montreal Canadiens worth $42.27 million over five years. Aho’s current team, the Carolina Hurricanes, said Tuesday they intend to match it. The comparison is far from perfect because Aho had more points at age 19 (49) than Vrana did at age 22. He is already an elite player with 83 points in the last year of his entry-level contract.
But would the Capitals worry about a similar strategy being used to poach Vrana knowing they don’t have a ton of room to maneuver financially? Why wouldn’t another team in the Metropolitan Division offer something a little high – say $12.5 million over three years – to at worst force Washington to match and trade a piece of its roster in the process?
The average annual value of $4.17 million on that kind of deal is key because it’s just below the $4.227 million threshold where a team would have to give back a first and third-round draft pick for signing Vrana to an offer sheet. The compensation in that case: Just a second-round draft pick in 2020. Hard to argue Vrana isn’t worth that.
The issue is more likely Vrana wouldn’t bother signing. Unless it’s absolutely his intent to leave Washington, where he already has a top-six role and has won the Stanley Cup, signing an offer sheet for a raise of less than $1 million only to return to teammates wondering why you just helped make their roster worse probably isn’t a good idea.
The Canadiens made the Aho offer because they figured Carolina might not be willing to pay the signing bonus money and salary ($21.9 million) they put into the first calendar year of the offer. The Capitals aren’t really worried about all this in part because Vrana falls outside that top tier of restricted free agents.
“I think everything we do we’re aware that it might be a possibility,” MacLellan said. “I think in this market there are probably other players that are in front of him, but I guess you never know. We’re cautious. I think we feel comfortable.”
Assuming that rare offer sheet move doesn’t happen, let’s find a good recent comparable of team and player. The Toronto Maple Leafs were in a similar scenario with forward Kasperi Kapanen this summer. With limited cap space given all the big names on its roster, Toronto passed on a long-term deal and gave Kapanen a three-year, 9.6 million bridge contract on June 28. The salary-cap hit is $3.2 million. And the similarities to Vrana are eerie.
Kapanen was chosen 22ndoverall in the first round of the 2014 draft. Vrana went 13ththat same draft class. Kapanen had 20 goals and 24 assists (44 points) in his age-22 season this past year. Vrana had 24 goals and 23 assists (47 points). Vrana is a February 1996 birthday and Kapanen is July 1996.
Kapanen averaged 16:37 of ice time last year. Vrana was at 14:02. Neither player is a factor yet on their top power-play units and instead work with the second group (93:28 for Vrana to 61:54 for Kapanen), but Kapanen does kill penalties (125:22) and Vrana (:30)… does not.
About the only major difference is that Kapanen played 38 NHL games in 2017-18 and spent much of that year in the AHL while Vrana played 73 games (13 goals, 14 assists) in the NHL and was a factor in the Stanley Cup playoffs with three goals and five assists. But even then Kapanen has four goals and an assist in 20 playoff games with the Maple Leafs the past three years.
No comparison is perfect. The Capitals took a similar tact with Andre Burakovsky in 2017. He had four fewer goals (36) than Vrana (40) in 20 extra games (196) through their entry-level deals. He’d also been more up-and-down with nine goals, 17 and back to 12 in an injury-shortened 2016-17 season (64 games) and never had the decisive breakthrough year that Vrana did last year.
Unsure quite what they had, the Capitals gave Burakovsky a two-year bridge contract for $6 million. After seeing out that, they decided to move on and traded Burakovsky last week to Colorado for a second and third-round draft pick.
Vrana has already reached a higher tier. But restricted free agents don’t have much leverage and Vrana isn’t eligible for arbitration until after next season. The Capitals only had to give him a qualifying offer of $874,125, which is 105% of his base salary on his entry-level contract ($832,500).
Washington has enough money to quadruple that, but not the cap space for now to give a five or six-year contract extension that would buy out Vrana’s first unrestricted free agent years which begin in 2023-24 and 2024-25. A two-year contract means less money for Vrana, but the chance to re-set sooner and bet on himself. A three-year deal through 2022 and his age-25 season means more security and makes the most sense for both sides. Now it’s a matter of getting it done.
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