Free Agent Focus: Washington Capitals

free agent focus: washington capitals

Washington Capitals center Connor McMichael.

Free agency is now just a bit more than a month away and teams are looking ahead to when it opens.  There will be several impact players set to hit the open market in July while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign as well.

We begin our look around the NHL with an overview of the free-agent situation for the Capitals.

Key Restricted Free Agents

F Connor McMichael – Former first-round pick McMichael finally found consistent playing time and offensive success at the NHL level after bouncing back and forth between Hershey and Washington. Two years ago, the Ajax, Ontario native was a regular in the Capitals lineup, but last year, he found himself back in Hershey. During the 2023-24 season, McMichael dressed in 80 NHL games, tallying 18 goals and 15 assists while playing almost 16 minutes a night. The 23-year-old appears likely to start next season as the Capitals third line center and should receive a healthy bump in pay from the $832.5K he made this past year. Given his offensive breakout, it seems reasonable to guess that McMichael will find himself on a short bridge contract in the range of $2M-$3M per year.

F Beck Malenstyn – Malenstyn had a breakout season this past year, dressing in 81 games while posting six goals and 15 assists. The 26-year-old was a fifth-round pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft and spent four years in the AHL with Hershey before finding full-time duty this season in Washington. Malenstyn might not have posted much in the way of offense, but he appeared to earn the trust of the Capitals coaching staff with his speed and work ethic. The Delta, British Columbia native started a whopping 92.2% of his shifts in the defensive zone (per Hockey Reference), a strikingly high number, especially for a younger player. As you might expect from that kind of deployment, Malenstyn posted terrible possession numbers with a CF% of 33.8% (per Hockey Reference). Malenstyn figures to get a good bump from the $775K this past season as he is arbitration-eligible and could be looking at a salary that doubles what he took home last season.

Other RFAs: C Ethen Frank, G Mitchell Gibson, D Hardy Häman Aktell, F Alex Limoges, F Riley Sutter

Key Unrestricted Free Agents

F Max Pacioretty – The hope when Pacioretty signed with the Capitals was that he would get healthy and provide some offensive depth. While he suffered some serious setbacks, he did manage to dress in 47 games for Washington, his highest total since the 2020-21 season when he played 48 games. Pacioretty’s comeback was heroic after suffering back-to-back Achilles injuries, but his speed was badly diminished and he struggled at times to keep up with the pace of his counterparts. Pacioretty still managed to post four goals and 19 assists last year while collecting $2M in salary and another $2M in bonuses; however, his CF% fell to a career-low 46.9% at even strength. At 35, he will still find work in the NHL, but it likely won’t be with Washington given that the Capitals have so many younger (and faster) players pushing for NHL jobs.

F Nicolas Aubé-Kubel – The 28-year-old Aubé-Kubel had the second-best offensive season of his career this past year with six goals and 10 assists in 60 games while playing a career-high 12:12 per game. On the surface, it looks like a terrific season for the Slave Lake, Alberta native, but his increase in ice time was largely due to the Capitals’ injury struggles and his extra playing time was more of a necessity than anything else. Aubé-Kubel’s underlying numbers fell to a career-low as his CF% was just 43.4% and his FF% fell to 42.5% (per Hockey Reference). While he performed better than his fellow fourth-liners it seems highly unlikely that the Capitals will look to extend Aubé-Kubel and may opt to chase a replacement in free agency or find an internal one.

F Matthew Phillips – Phillips has been a solid AHL scorer for several seasons and finally got an extended look in the NHL this past year. It didn’t go as hoped for the 26-year-old as he posted just a goal and four assists in 31 games while being claimed off waivers twice. Phillips is in a unique position as a Group 6 UFA (meaning he is 25 years or older and has completed three or more professional seasons in which he’s played one or more professional games). At 5-foot-8 and just 160 pounds, Phillips is very undersized by NHL standards; however, teams will be intrigued by his offensive skill and will likely offer him a two-way contract at the NHL minimum, with a healthy downside salary at the AHL level.

Other UFAs: D Lucas Johansen, D Chase Priskie, F Joe Snively

Projected Cap Space

The Capitals will head into the summer with around $6.7M in cap space but could have upwards of $16M depending on the status of center Nicklas Bäckström who appears likely to remain on LTIR for the remainder of his contract. The Capitals could also explore a trade for goaltender Darcy Kuemper who carries a $5.25M cap hit for three more seasons, although that might be a tough task given his struggles last season. Up front, the Capitals have some holes to fill, particularly at center. Given his recent history, it seems likely that general manager Brian MacLellan will explore a short-term deal for a veteran or take a chance on a bounce-back candidate as they did with Dylan Strome in the summer of 2022. The Capitals could also be in the market for a depth defenseman as they have some uncertainty on the backend with Trevor van Riemsdyk’s struggles. A versatile veteran, van Riemsdyk can play on both sides of the ice, but adding another blueliner would give Washington some options heading into next season.

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