As the Washington Capitals devoted the first day of free agency to plugging the bottom-six forward holes in their lineup with the low-key signings of forwards Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic, some of their rivals in the Metropolitan Division opted for blockbuster deals in what’s turned into an offseason arms race.
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Washington agreed to terms with Panik on Sunday, and the four-year, $11 million deal became official Monday afternoon NHL free agency opened. With the departures of Andre Burakovsky, who was traded to Colorado on Friday, and Brett Connolly, who signed a four-year, $13 million contract with Florida Monday, the Capitals needed someone to slot into the third line beside center Lars Eller and left wing Carl Hagelin. Connolly had held that role for the past three seasons, scoring 52 goals with 44 assists over that span to earn a pay day with the Panthers.
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Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said he didn’t want to commit more than $3 million per season for the team’s new third-line right wing, and in Panik, Washington gets a speedy, two-way forward who scored 14 goals with 19 assists playing with the Arizona Coyotes last season. The 28-year-old Slovak averaged more than 16 minutes per game, logging time on Arizona’s penalty kill and power play, and he could get similar responsibilities with the Capitals.
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“We like his two-way game,” MacLellan said. “He’s always produced somewhat offensively. We expect him to be that 35- to 45-point range. His five-on-five point production has been pretty solid. He can play in a top-six role, at times. Then this year, I think we’ve been impressed by his [penalty kill] ability. … He’ll fit well on our third line.”
Panik said Washington was the first team he talked to during the unrestricted free agent interview period last week, and he signed with the Capitals because they were the only team to offer him a four-year deal. His best season was the 2016-17 campaign, when he scored 22 goals with 22 assists for the Chicago Blackhawks.
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“Obviously I would like to get back on track on that 20-goal mark,” Panik said. “I think in Washington, with the style they’re playing, I can do it easily.”
The additions of Leipsic and Hathaway will bring a new look to a fourth line that underwhelmed last season. Leipsic, who scored seven goals with 16 assists last season, is expected to get a league-minimum contract worth $700,000, and this will be his fifth team. Hathaway, signed to a four-year, $6 million deal, plays a gritty, pugilistic game. He scored 11 goals with eight assists for the Calgary Flames last season, and in a sign the Capitals wanted to improve a penalty kill that struggled, he averaged 1:42 shorthanded per game last year. A four-year, $11 million extension for Hagelin last month was also done with the penalty kill in mind.
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While Washington addressed specific needs, the team’s rivals in the Metropolitan Division made bigger moves. Most notably, the New York Rangers beat out the New York Islanders to land free-agent prize Artemi Panarin on a massive seven-year contract worth $11.64 million annually. The Russian winger scored 28 goals with 59 assists last season, and acquiring him marks the end of the Rangers’ rebuilding period after the team missed the playoffs the past two seasons. In addition to landing Panarin, New York added top-four defenseman Jacob Trouba in a trade with Winnipeg last month, and the Rangers used the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to select stud prospect winger Kappo Kaako.
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Meanwhile, the Islanders, considered the favorites for Panarin as recently as Sunday night, not only lost out on him but are also likely to part with their top goaltender from last season in Robin Lehner, a Vezina Trophy finalist this year. After some question of whether the team would re-sign captain Anders Lee, who scored 28 goals with 23 assists last season, the two sides agreed to a seven-year, $49 million contract. New York finished second to the Capitals in the division last season, largely because the Islanders allowed the fewest goals in the league
The other team to have a rough July 1 was the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose roster got decimated with the free-agent departures of Panarin, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (signed with Florida) and center Matt Duchene (signed with Nashville). Winger Ryan Dzingel is also an unrestricted free agent who could land elsewhere. The Blue Jackets recovered slightly by adding forward Gustav Nyquist on a four-year contract carrying a $5.5 million cap hit
Elsewhere in the Metropolitan Division, the New Jersey Devils agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal with big, bruising winger Wayne Simmonds. After missing the playoffs last season, the Devils used the No. 1 overall pick to draft center Jack Hughes and then traded for star defenseman P.K. Subban, moves that are expected to correlate with a bump in the standings next season. The Pittsburgh Penguins, ousted in the first round of last season’s playoffs, signed forward Brandon Tanev from the Winnipeg Jets for six years at $3.5 million per season. The physical forward recorded 14 goals and 29 points in last season
“I think that the teams that were at the bottom all got better,” MacLellan said. “I would anticipate this is going to be the best division in the league. … We’ve won the Metro the last couple years and I think the guys we brought in are really good players. So, I think our team’s situated well.”
Arguably the most active team on July 1 was the Florida Panthers, who in addition to signing Bobrovsky and Connolly also inked defenseman Anton Stralman and depth forward Noel Acciari. The seven-year, $70 million contract to Bobrovsky will directly impact the Capitals for the next year going into 2020 free agency. That deal will be used as the main comparable for Washington goaltender Braden Holtby, who is poised to become an unrestricted free agent after this upcoming season. He might already be out of the Capitals’ price range
“I don’t know if it affects the decision-making,” MacLellan said. “It’s a comparable. It’s a peer, and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success, and Holtby has a Stanley Cup on his resume.”
Isabelle Khurshudyan Isabelle Khurshudyan covers the Washington Capitals. A University of South Carolina graduate, she has worked at The Washington Post since 2014, previously reporting on high school sports and local colleges. Follow
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