After the Cup is hoisted, the draft is held, and the first of the big name free agents are signed, the end of July is for tending to restricted free agents who are arbitration eligible.
For the Washington Capitals, two important pieces were on the clock. Goaltender Braden Holtby and forward Marcus Johansson each elected to submit to arbitration after insufficient progress was made in signing them to new contracts with the Capitals. Holtby was scheduled for his hearing with the arbitrator on July 23rd, and Johansson had his hearing scheduled for July 29th.
Both players went through with their hearings with the arbitrator, but the results were slightly different. In the 48-hour window between hearing and decision, Holtby and the Capitals agreed on a five year/$30.5 million contract. His $6.1 million average annual value ranks him seventh among league goaltenders. He is the youngest of ten goalies with cap hits of at least $6.0 million. In fact, Holtby is the youngest of the top-27 goaltenders in average annual value. One would have to go to Martin Jones of the San Jose Sharks ($3.0 million AAV) to find a younger netminder. It is the longest contract for a Capitals goaltender since Olaf Kolzig was signed to a four-year/$25 million deal in 2001.
Johansson also proceeded with the arbitration hearing, but the 48-hour window expired, and then some, without the sides coming to agreement on a negotiated contract. On the evening of Friday, July 31st, hours after the deadline for a decision expired, the decision was announced – a one-year/$3.75 million contract. The deal puts Johansson in the top-15 among forwards in cap hit of age 24 or younger.
The deals leave the Capitals with 13 roster forwards, seven roster defensemen, and two roster goalies (assuming one of either Philipp Grubauer or Justin Peters is sent to the Hershey Bears). That would leave the Caps with a total salary cap hit of $69,980,959, leaving $1,419,041 in cap room (numbers from generalfanager.com).
It does not mean that the Caps are done. Certainly they were not in the last week of July. Washington signed defenseman Ryan Stanton on July 24th. Stanton, most recently of the Vancouver Canucks, appeared in 119 regular season games over three seasons, recording four goals and 27 points with a plus-15. He can carry a decent workload. In 54 games with the Canucks last season, the 26-year old defenseman averaged 16 minutes a game. It is unlikely he will see that many games or that many minutes for the Capitals, but he could be a better seventh defenseman option for the Caps than Taylor Chorney, and he is cheaper, with a $575,000 cap hit on a one-year/two-way contract (Chorney’s is $700,000, but he is on a one-way deal that complicates the competition).
And that brings us to “if’s.” If it is Stanton who makes the squad instead of Chorney, and if forward Zach Sill slotted to start the season in Hershey, the Caps would have just over $2.1 million in cap room with which to seek a bottom six forward.
For now, the top six is set…sort of. There are Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Justin Williams, and Johansson. Oh wait…that’s seven. At the moment, it would seem as if Burakovsky and Johansson will battle for the second line left wing position, the loser perhaps centering the third line. It is a good problem to have going to camp, but the fact is that the other five bottom-six forward positions do not inspire as much confidence, at least in the offensive end of the ice. Brooks Laich has only 16 goals in 126 games over the last three seasons. Jason Chimera has 25 goals in 206 games since posting 20 in 82 games of the 2011-2012 season and will be 36 years old on Opening Night. Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, and Michael Latta combined for 14 goals last season, and that included a career-high ten from Beagle. As for special teams, one would not expect any of these five to see much, if any power play time (although Laich was once a productive power play scorer), but only Laich, Beagle, and Chimera averaged more than a minute of power play time over the course of last season (they are the top three returning forwards in penalty killing time per game last season), while Latta (six seconds per game) and Wilson (no penalty killing time) did not participate. One would have to think there is yet work to be done here.
The Caps did have another transaction this past week. They signed Jonas Siegenthaler to a three-year entry level contract on Thursday. Siegenthaler was taken with the 57th overall pick (second round) in the entry draft this past June. It would seem that his debut in pro hockey in North America (likely with the Hershey Bears) will wait a year as it seems probable he will return to the Zurich Lions of the Swiss-A league for the 2015-2016 season.
It was an eventful week for the Caps, perhaps more so than one would normally expect this time of year. It might be the last one before rookie camp starts in September (although August has occasionally had some surprises). Except for a couple of tweaks here or there, this now looks like the team the Caps will send out in search of their first Stanley Cup next season.