Capitals’ Roster Can’t Fit Remaining RFAs

2019 NHL Free Agency, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals

After a flurry of free agent signings and losses, the Washington Capitals still have three restricted free agents from their 2018-19 roster unaccounted for: defenseman Christian Djoos and forwards Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson.

As part of their previous contracts, Djoos and Stephenson retained the right to arbitration if negotiations hit an impasse on their next contract. Despite a $715,000 qualifying offer to each from general manager Brian MacLellan, both players took this route, officially filing for arbitration over the weekend.

According to CapFriendly, the Capitals are only $4,285,706 under the salary cap, leaving them with little to spend and making it highly unlikely that MacLellan can keep all three players on the roster. 

Djoos Coming Loose

Djoos showed great potential in his first NHL season, propping up the bottom-six on defense in the Caps’ 2017-18 Stanley Cup Championship lineup, while also providing support on the penalty kill.

Christian Djoos Washington Capitals
Christian Djoos, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, last season Djoos’ career hit a major stumbling block. A thigh injury in early December devolved into compartment syndrome, a complication that required surgery. He returned to the Capitals’ lineup by the end of the season but he never reached the same level of production, scoring only one goal and nine assists. Head coach Todd Reirden scratched the 24-year-old defender for the final four games of their playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Assuming Djoos does re-sign with the Capitals, he will face competition for his spot from Jonas Siegenthaler, who still has one year remaining on his entry-level contract. Siegenthaler broke into the NHL for the first time last season, collecting four assists in 26 games as the Capitals needed to fill the hole left by Djoos’ injury. Against the Hurricanes, Siegenthaler took Djoos’ place on the third line alongside John Carlson and held up well, coming out with an even plus/minus rating.

Washington Capitals Jonas Siegenthaler
Washington Capitals defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Stephenson Question

While the Capitals’ first and second lines are set in stone (barring an unlikely trade or free agent acquisition), MacLellan and Reirden still need to sort out the bottom six. This means finding a place for Stephenson, even if that place is somewhere other than Capital One Arena.

Stephenson’s point total fell to 11 in 2018-19, a seven-point drop from the previous season despite appearing in only three fewer games and averaging 30 seconds more ice time per game. Worse yet, his plus/minus rating fell from plus-13 to minus-13, which may be an indication of his impact on the fourth line’s performance – or lack thereof.

The first sign of trouble should have been when Reirden made Stephenson a healthy scratch for 11 of the Caps’ final 19 games of the regular season. The second sign, however, was plain to see.

Chandler Stephenson Capitals
Washington Capitals center Chandler Stephenson (Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

On the first day of free agency, the Capitals acquired Garnet Hathaway from the Calgary Flames and Brendan Leipsic from the Los Angeles Kings, both of whom are expected to compete with Stephenson for spots on the fourth line where they would line up on the wing with established center Nic Dowd. Leipsic is coming off the best season of his career, with five goals in only 45 games – the same amount that Stephenson scored in 64 games.

With three players battling for two positions on the fourth line, and three unrestricted free agents battling for two contracts’ worth of cap space, Stephenson finds himself the odd man out, twice.

Tight Budget

The third and final unsigned RFA, forward Jakub Vrana, is coming off a career-best season looking to earn a raise from his three-year, $2,500,000 contract. Unlike the other two RFAs, he cannot seek arbitration until next off-season as he signed his initial contract between the ages of 18 and 20, per league rules.

Washington Capitals Jakub Vrana
Washington Capitals Jakub Vrana celebrates. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

There is no word, either official or unofficial, on whether Vrana is approaching a deal to remain a Capital. However, if he does return, it will likely be on a one-year bridge deal and not on a long-term contract, according to NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti.

No hard numbers have leaked through but for reference, former Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky – traded to the Colorado Avalanche earlier this month – was in a similar contract situation two years ago. When all was said and done, Burakovsky came out with a two-year bridge deal worth $6,000,000, a cap hit of $3,000,000 per year. While the Capitals’ salary cap crunch makes such a high price tag impossible for Vrana, it serves to illustrate how far MacLellan could go to keep blossoming young talent in the Caps’ stable.

As for Djoos and Stephenson, arbitration hearings will not begin until later this month or early August, unless both sides can agree to a deal first. The players will continue to negotiate until the set hearing date.

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