2019 NHL free agency

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Capitals face tough salary cap questions after re-signing Hagelin

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The Washington Capitals made a shrewd move in trading away Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas, as the deal made Washington younger, cheaper, and possibly even better on defense. They used some of that newfound cap space to re-sign Carl Hagelin on Sunday, but the deal makes you wonder who might get lost in the salary cap shuffle.

First, the deal: the Capitals signed Hagelin, 30, to a four-year contract worth $11 million, which clocks in at a $2.75M cap hit.

The Capitals acquired Hagelin in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings that costs Washington its 2019 third-rounder (89th overall, via Cap Friendly). There was a conditional sixth-rounder, but the conditions were not met.

Hagelin’s speed and possession game proved to be a very nice fit for the Capitals, although his already declining offense may only sag more if the Swede hits the aging curve hard.

Hagelin went from the Penguins to the Kings, and then the Kings to the Capitals this season. He generated five goals and 19 points over 58 regular-season games, with his best work coming in Washington (three goals, 11 points in 20 games). Hagelin only managed an assist during Washington’s seven-game Round 1 series against the Hurricanes.

At this point in his career, it’s not as much about the points. Instead, it’s about Hagelin’s foot speed and overall play, two factors that are clearly very appealing to the Caps.

Overall, this is a reasonable deal, albeit with some concern over term.

The other concern, again, is who might this push out of Washington? Even with the considerable money savings from getting rid of Niskanen’s $5.75M for Gudas ($2.345M after Philly retained some salary), the Capitals have some decisions to make.

According to Cap Friendly, the Capitals have about $10.736M in cap space remaining, at least if the ceiling ends up being $83M. (Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that there are at least some rumblings about it being closer to $82M, depending upon how escrow works out.)

The Capitals’ $72.264M in spending goes to 17 roster spots, and there are some substantial players who need new deals, or will hit the free agent market.

RFAs

UFAs

Things have been tumultuous with Burakovsky, but the 24-year-old is a nice talent. Would the Capitals lean toward moving his rights, or try to find a bridge deal?

The Capitals at least have Burakovsky as an RFA, although he is arbitration-eligible. The tougher situation might be with Connolly, who would be a UFA at 27. Connolly’s shown why he was a first-rounder (sixth overall by the Lightning in 2010), as he scored 22 goals and 46 points in 51 games last season. Those numbers are strong out of context, but they’re remarkable when you realize that Connolly only averaged 13:20 TOI per game in 2018-19.

For some context, Connolly generated 2.66 points per 60 minutes at even-strength this season, according to Natural Stat Trick. Connolly’s points-per-minute rate was the 18th-best in the NHL this past season for players who logged at least 100 minutes, better than Evgeny Kuznetsov (2.47) and Alex Ovechkin (2.39).

(Interestingly, Hagelin is the only Capitals player who generated a better rate, at least if you limit it to the 20 games he played with the Capitals, as Hagelin scored 2.72 points-per-60.)

So, more than worries about Hagelin aging – which will happen, but we’ll see how detrimental that process will be – the real misgiving would be wondering who can’t stay because Hagelin stayed put.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Hagelin means no Connolly, or no Burakovsky. It’s plausible that Connolly, in particular, was going to be a luxury Washington would need to say goodbye to, no matter what. Sometimes that’s just the painful reality of the salary cap era.

Still, Hagelin’s taking up $2.75M from 2019-20 through 2022-23, so it does cost Washington that much space.

Overall, the Capitals’ situation remains challenging, and it really solidifies the thought that they really needed to part ways with Niskanen. Not only did they go cheaper for 2019-20, but Gudas’ contract runs out after next season, while Washington would have been on the hook for Niskanen at $5.75M through 2020-21.

That’s highly important, because two prominent Capitals enter contract years in 2019-20: Braden Holtby (29, $6.1M) and Nicklas Backstrom (31, $6.7M).

Unless the Capitals have something bold planned, such as a rather severe leap from goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov, you’d think both Holtby and Backstrom would be getting big raises.

So that makes a difficult situation even more complicated, as the Capitals don’t want to tie up too much money when those bargain contracts are coming up. Heck, even Alex Ovechkin’s situation will be something to watch, as the 33-year-old’s seemingly eternal $9.54M cap hit runs out after 2020-21.

In other words, the Capitals provided an answer by re-signing Hagelin, but they have plenty of other, tougher questions lingering, and by opening that window, they might have closed a door for another would-be player.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Isles start busy offseason by re-signing Eberle

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The New York Islanders took care of some business on Friday morning, as they’ve signed Jordan Eberle to a five-year contract extension. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, the contract is worth a total of $27.5 million ($5.5 million AAV).

The 29-year-old had 19 goals and 37 points in 78 games during the regular season, which isn’t overly impressive given his offensive skillset, but he made up for it in the playoffs where he scored four goals and nine points in eight contests.

As difficult as Eberle’s regular season was, this seems like a pretty good contract for the Islanders. After all, the veteran is just one year removed from a season that saw him put up 25 goals and 59 points in 81 games. So getting him for $500,000 less per year than he made on his previous contract seems like good business for the team.

Here are the specifics of the contract via CapFriendly:

Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello has a number of questions that need to be answered this off-season, but he’s now taken care of one of them. Lamoriello still has to sign restricted free agent Anthony Beauvillier to a new contract and he also has to find a way to bring back captain Anders Lee and goaltender Robin Lehner. Both veterans are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.

Money shouldn’t be an issue for the Isles this offseason, as they still have over $22 million in projected cap space. The issue will be convincing Lee and Lehner to stay at reasonable salaries and trying to get potential unrestricted free agents to agree to join the group.

The Islanders were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season. Under Barry Trotz, they were able to make the playoffs and bounce the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. But in order to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference, they’ll have to add to their current group.

Will Lou be able to add some talent this summer?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

How different will Bruins look next season?

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The Boston Bruins were within one win of taking home the Stanley Cup this year, but in the end it simply wasn’t meant to be. As disappointed as they must be, they still put together an incredible season and postseason in 2018-19, and they have something they can continue to build on in the near future.

Yes, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand are both over 30 and, yes, Zdeno Chara is 42 years old, but there’s enough talent there that they may go on another championship push as soon as next season. General manager Don Sweeney will have to get creative in order to improve his team, but he’s found a way to add to this roster every year.

The Bruins have about $14.3 million in cap space heading into the offseason. Re-signing Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo will likely eat up a good chunk of those available funds though. They also have to decide whether or not they want to bring back Marcus Johansson, who they acquired from the New Jersey Devils right before the trade deadline. Danton Heinen will also be a restricted free agent, while Noel Acciari is scheduled to become a UFA on July 1st.

For Sweeney, the issue isn’t just re-signing potential free agents this year, it’s also about projecting ahead to next summer when Jake DeBrusk will be an RFA and when Torey Krug and Charlie Coyle will need new contracts. There was a lot of trade speculation around Krug throughout the season, but do the Bruins really want to move him after the postseason he just had? Probably not.

In the end, Sweeney can’t sit around and do nothing, and he probably won’t. So what can he do to make this group better?

Boston is set up in goal with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. Assuming McAvoy and Carlo are back, they’ll have eight defensemen under contract next season. So, unless Krug is moved, you’d have to think that they like the way their defense looks heading into next season.

One area where they can improve, is scoring depth. As we saw throughout the Stanley Cup Final, David Krejci and DeBrusk were relatively quiet. Krejci is now 33 years old, and he’s the highest paid forward on the team at $7.25 million (there are two years left on his deal).

Also, finding someone to take on David Backes‘ contract would be huge (two years remaining at a cap hit of $6 million). Sweeney would have to give up some kind of asset to make that happen though. Buying out Backes isn’t really an option, because he would cost $5.67 million on the cap next season and $3.67 million the year after that. They need someone to take him ofter their hands for a draft pick and/or a prospect.

If the Bruins can make the money work, they’ll likely be in the mix for a number of big-name free agents on July 1st. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them make a run at Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle, or even Kevin Hayes, who is from Dorchester, Massachusetts. If they keep the perfection line together, they need to find a way to address the second line so that they can remove some of the scoring pressure on Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

So there’s a good chance the Bruins will look similar to the group that just went to the Stanley Cup Final, but don’t be surprised if they add a piece or two up front in an attempt to get themselves over the hump next year.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Trade: Caps shed salary by sending Niskanen to Flyers for Gudas

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A pair of division rivals have agreed to swap defensemen.

On Friday morning, the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers agreed to a trade, as the Caps sent Matt Niskanen to the Flyers for Radko Gudas.

The Caps made this move with the salary cap in mind. Niskanen has two years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $5.75 million per year. Gudas has just one year remaining on his deal at $3.35 million, but The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun is reporting that the Flyers will eat 30 percent of his remaining salary.

All in all, this trade will save Washington $3.405 million in cap space, which isn’t insignificant.

“We would like to thank Matt for all of his contributions to our organization for the past five seasons,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said in a release. “Matt is a consummate professional and was a big part of our success. We wish him and his family all the best moving forward.

“We feel this move provides us with financial flexibility as we look for additional ways to strengthen our team. In addition, we are pleased to welcome Radko to our organization. Radko is a good defensive defenseman that plays a competitive, physical game.”

As you can tell from the quote above, McLellan mentioned the cap relief before the addition of Gudas. That’s not to say that Gudas won’t contribute this season, but they clearly wanted to free up as much money as possible while getting rid of Niskanen, who struggled in 2018-19.

The 32-year-old immediately becomes the Flyers’ highest paid defenseman. Now that Gudas is gone, Niskanen is the only right-shooting defenseman on the team. It’s also important to note he had to agree to go to Philadelphia because he had a limited no-trade clause (he submitted a list of 10 teams he didn’t want to go to).

Niskanen’s tenure in Washington wasn’t a failure by any means though. As much as he struggled last year, he still helped the Caps win a Stanley Cup in 2018 and he logged some big minutes for them during his five seasons there.

So now that this move has been made, McLellan will have roughly $12.5 million in projected cap space this summer. The Caps only have eight forwards under contract right now, so you’d have to think that he’s going to need to find himself some depth up front. Whether he brings back Andre Burakovsky (restricted free agent), Carl Hagelin (unrestricted free agent), or Brett Connolly (unrestricted free agent) remains to be seen. But he’s going to have to build himself a fourth line at the very least.

If they decide to go with cost-efficient depth players, they may even be able to add a significant piece to their roster via trade or via free agency.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.