Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had a difficult task this offseason of maintaining a roster that could still compete for the Stanley Cup despite facing a major salary cap crunch. The first big move came on Friday with the trade of Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for Radko Gudas which freed up a sizable amount of cap space. The second big move came on Sunday with the re-signing of forward Carl Hagelin.
Washington acquired Hagelin at the trade deadline and he fit in well with the team. Now the Caps have locked him up for the next four years with an $11 million deal.
There’s a lot to like about this move.
Hagelin is a good player who played a significant role with two Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins teams. He scored only 18 points last season, but 11 of those points came in 20 games with the Caps showing there was an obvious fit. He instantly became Washington’s best forward penalty killer as he logged 2:21 of shorthanded ice time per game with the Caps, the most among the team’s forwards.
The Swedish forward is also incredibly versatile and can fit into any he is plugged into. That is a valuable asset considering the team may not have enough cap room to fill all its holes this offseason.
What Hagelin is best known for, however, is his speed. Now opposing teams will have to contend with the speed of players like Hagelin, Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov all while worrying about the physical play from players like Tom Wilson and Radko Gudas.
All that, and it came at a pretty great price.
After finishing up a four-year contract with a $4 million per year cap hit, Hagelin’s new deal carries a very modest cap hit of just $2.75 million.
Given his pedigree and his skillet, it seems likely there may have been a market for Hagelin’s talents had he reached free agency. The interview period in which free agents are free to talk to other teams does not begin until June 23 so this new contract prevented Hagelin for exploring other opportunities.
As good as this deal is, however, there are some problems with it as well that carry implications across the roster.
Just because Washington got Hagelin for cheap does not mean they did not overpay. Signing free agents frequently results in a team overpaying as the market tends to bump up the value of desirable players. MacLellan has, throughout his tenure, sought to keep cap hits low by offering long-term deals. Hagelin is no exception.
Hagelin will turn 31 in August. For a player whose main asset is speed, four years is a long term to give him. As smart a player as he is, once his speed begins to falter with age it will significantly hinder his effectiveness as a player.
You may not consider 31 to be old, but it is old enough that the team should be concerned by how he will look in the last few years of his contract.
Washington now has nine forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season. According to CapFriendly, the Caps sit at about $10.7 million under the projected cap ceiling of $83 million. Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and expected to return. If Vrana takes a bridge deal, he will likely take a $4 million cap hit while Djoos should come in at about $1 million. That gives the Caps about $5.7 million to sign another three forwards and that’s assuming the salary cap is $83 million. According to Elliotte Friedman, after the combine, several teams believe the cap will actually be closer to $82 million which would, of course, mean less room for Washington to maneuver.
On the surface, $5.7 million appears to be plenty, but things are much tighter considering Brett Connolly is an unrestricted free agent and Andre Burakovsky is a restricted free agent. Just to qualify Burakovky would require offering him one year at $3.25 million. Suddenly that $5.7 million does not appear to be all that much.
At the very least, the Caps are going to be limited in what they can offer a player like Connolly and that will make it difficult to re-sign him.
“I was able to produce here, for sure,” Connolly said on breakdown day. “But it was in a limited role. So, part of me wants to challenge myself again and take that next step in my development. I'm 26, I feel I'm in the prime of my career, my body feels great. There's going to be opportunity out there, I know that.”
Connolly turned 27 in May and is coming off a season in which he scored 22 goals, 24 assists and 46 points, all career-highs. Given the talent Washington boasts on its roster and their salary cap, there will be teams out there willing to offer Connolly a bigger role and more money than what the Caps can in free agency and that was before Washington re-signed Hagelin.
The problem here is that offensive depth is an issue for the Caps and one that Connolly directly addresses. In their playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington scored 20 goals in seven games. The team’s bottom-six forwards accounted for only five of those goals. That is just not enough. Of those five goals, one of them was an empty-netter and one came on a penalty shot. Of those three remainings, two were scored by Connolly.
Now the team may have no choice but to see its biggest bottom-six offensive threat leave in free agency and MacLellan has limited money with which to pursue free agent forwards leaving no clear solution for how to replace Connolly’s production. It is not going to come just from getting a full season from Hagelin.
Hagelin does a lot of different things really well on the ice. Producing offensively isn’t one of them. His career-high in goals is 17 which he last scored in 2014-15. Last season, he had five.
Yes, Hagelin is a very good player who adds speed, helps the team’s penalty kill and comes in at a great cap hit. What he does not address, however, is one of the team’s biggest weaknesses and his signing will make it very hard for the Caps to fix that weakness this summer.
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