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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Will keeping Carl Hagelin over Brett Connolly prove to be the right move?

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Will keeping Carl Hagelin over Brett Connolly prove to be the right move?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at the team’s decision to re-sign Carl Hagelin.

Will keeping Hagelin over Brett Connolly prove to be the right move?

As the Caps entered the offseason with a number of important personnel decisions to make, one of them was whether to re-sign Hagelin or Connolly. Both players needed new contracts but the team could only afford to re-sign one of them.

Hagelin is a very versatile player. He could fit into just about every offensive line if the team needed, has great speed and is a top penalty killer. His offensive upside, however, is limited as he has never scored more than 17 goals and 35 points in a single season and he did that back in 2014-15. He was limited to just five total goals last season. Connolly, on the other hand, is not nearly as versatile a player. He is not great in his own end and not overly physical or fast. He is a sniper and the one thing he does well is score goals.

Last season was a career year for Connolly who scored 22 goals and 46 points, topping his previous career-high set the year before by 19 points.

With enough money for one player, the Caps elected to keep Hagelin and signed him to a four-year, $11 million contract with a cap hit of $2.75 million per season.

But was it the right move?

Initially, it sure didn’t look like it. Twenty-goal scorers do not grow on trees and Connolly was able to score 22 goals despite playing on the third line with only 13:20 worth of ice-time per game. Washington got only five goals from its bottom-six in seven playoff games last season and Connolly had two of them. Now they were going to let him walk?

But Brian MacLellan had a plan. While offensive depth looked like an issue, team defense may have been a bigger one. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps did. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons. As one would expect, this is leading to more goals in the back of the net. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

The additions of players like Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic are a clear indication that the team is looking to get better defensively. With that goal in mind, it makes sense why MacLellan would value a player like Hagelin, who fits the mold for what the team is trying to accomplish with its bottom-six, as opposed to Connolly.

Connolly would ultimately sign a four-year, $14 million deal with the Florida Panthers giving him a cap hit that was $750,000 higher than Hagelin’s. That is not a huge amount, but when you consider the Caps currently sit over the salary cap after Christian Djoos was awarded a $1.25 million contract in arbitration, that is a difference in hindsight the team really could not afford.

For now, keeping Hagelin over Connolly makes sense. Washington will miss Connolly’s offensive production from its lineup, but if the team gives up fewer goals next season then it will not need as many. If the team suffers an injury to the top-six, however, it has lost that obvious candidate to bump up into a bigger role. If the team does not improve defensively quite as much as anticipated, those missing 22 goals will loom large as the team certainly looks a bit more top-heavy offensively than the past few years.

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The Capitals got better with their free agent moves, just not in the way you expected

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The Capitals got better with their free agent moves, just not in the way you expected

One of the biggest needs for the Capitals heading into the offseason was forward depth, specifically the fourth line. By whatever metric you want to use, it just was not good enough in 2018-19.

One of the obvious problems was the lack of offense. In seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington scored 20 goals. Five of those goals came from the bottom-six and one of those was an empty netter. That’s not good enough.

The Capitals were busy on Monday with a number of signings and look like they will have a new fourth line with the addition of free agent forwards Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic.

The most important question a team should ask itself in the offseason is if it got better and, at first glance, you may not see how Washington improved with these signings. Brett Connolly, who scored 22 goals last season, and Andre Burakovsky are both gone. Richard Panik, who was also signed Monday, will play on the third line. He scored 22 goals once in his career, back in 2016-17 with the Chicago Blackhawks when he was playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Hathaway and Leipsic’s career-highs in goals are 11 and seven respectively.

So did the Caps actually get better or did they have to just settle for what they could afford given the team’s salary cap constraints?

Offensively it seems unlikely that Washington’s new additions will match the production of the players the team has lost, but Brian MacLellan was looking to improve the team in other ways this offseason.

When evaluating the team, the offensive struggles of the fourth line were obvious. Less obvious were the team’s defensive struggles. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps did. Washington held the third worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to more goals in the back of the net as well. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

Yes, Matt Niskanen had a down year and that’s why he and his $5.75 million cap hit is now in Philadelphia. But the forward lines play a role in team defense too and it is pretty clear MacLellan was searching for players with a proven track record of shot suppression to address that weakness.

MacLellan tipped his hand as to how he hoped to improve the team earlier in the offseason when he elected to extend Carl Hagelin. The team did not have enough cap room to re-sign both Connolly and Hagelin and MacLellan chose to extend the speedy penalty killer with limited offensive production in Hagelin over Connolly who scored 22 goals and 46 points last season. It should come as no surprise then that Hathaway is a strong penalty killer who averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice time per night last season with the Calgary Flames.

So while the Caps may be losing offensive production this offseason, they have gained a new-look bottom six that looks much more defensively formidable. They also added key pieces to the penalty kill and return Hagelin who, when he was acquired at the trade deadline, instantly became Washington’s best penalty killer.

A cynic will say the direction the team took this offseason is a product of their cap space. It is often easier to focus on defense than offense because defense is harder to quantify. A 20-goal scorer is almost always more expensive than a shutdown forward.

There is no doubt that money played a factor in the team’s moves this offseason, but the direction MacLellan took looks like it was borne of necessity, not penny-pinching. Team defense was as glaring a weakness as depth offensive production was last season and you have to keep in mind that the offensive superstars are getting older. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are all 31 or older. That is half of the top-six. These three are not going to continue to produce at such a high level forever. When a team built around its offense starts to lose that offensive production, things can collapse pretty quickly. The team had to improve defensively or it would have to rely solely on an aging offensive core plus Braden Holtby in net to carry them. Now, on paper at least, Washington looks like a stronger team defensively heading into 2019-20.

So yes, Caps look like they have gotten better, just not the way you probably anticipated.

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Brett Connolly says goodbye to Capitals, D.C. with heartfelt letter

Brett Connolly says goodbye to Capitals, D.C. with heartfelt letter

Brett Connolly's NHL career will start anew in Florida with the Panthers thanks to a four-year, $14 million contract.

But before he leaves the Washington Capitals, Connolly expressed his thanks to the organization and to the city for the time he spent in the area.

"Achieving my childhood dream alongside you.. DC and you all (fans) will forever have a special place in my heart," Connolly wrote.

Over the past three seasons, Connolly posted a career high in goals and points last season with 22 and 46, respectively, and won the Stanley Cup with the team in 2018.

He was also a favorite among fans, including one who got a tattoo of Connolly himself getting a tattoo while munching on pizza.

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