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.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
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- Djoos is loose: Arbitration decision leaves Caps in tricky situation