- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Washington Capitals have gotten an early start on free agency.

The Capitals made a significant move last week when they re-signed forward T.J. Oshie to an eight-year, $46 million contract. Oshie was the No. 1 priority for the Capitals among their pending unrestricted free agents and Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan wasn’t sure they could re-sign him.

But a deal got done and now on the eve of free agency, the Capitals will shift their sights to re-signing their own restricted free agents and filling the hole for a top four defenseman created after Nate Schmidt was taken in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights.

NHL free agency begins noon Saturday.

Taking care of business

MacLellan said last month the Capitals‘ restricted free agents will be the priority.

The Capitals have four RFAs: center Evgeny Kuznetsov, forward Andre Burakovsky, goalie Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

“I think all these guys are getting better, will have a bigger role on our team and they’ll be the priority for us to sign here going forward,” MacLellan said.

Washington, according to capfriendly.com, has $17.5 million to work with. That money will be needed to extend those four players and MacLellan said he would be open to long term deals for both Kuznetsov and Orlov, both who showed a lot of promise last season.

Kuznetsov, 25, was Washington’s second line center and had 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) last year. He was one of the Capitals‘ most consistent players in the playoffs with five goals and five assists.

Orlov, on the other hand, thrived playing next to defenseman Matt Niskanen. Orlov is also 25 and showed considerable promise after being benched briefly in the 2016 playoffs. He had a career-high 33 points (six goals, 27 assists) last season.

The Capitals also already took care of one previous RFA — reportedly re-signing forward Brett Connolly to a two-year, $3 million deal. Connolly spent most of the regular season on the third line, but was demoted in the playoffs and saw his ice time diminish as the playoffs went on.

Connolly was inactive after Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round with coach Barry Trotz electing to use seven defensemen instead. Still, Connolly had a career-high 15 goals during the regular season.

Saying bon voyage

The Capitals have four unrestricted free agents: Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Daniel Winnik and Justin Williams. After the Capitals agreed with Oshie, MacLellan told reporters in Chicago, he “would assume” the Capitals were done re-signing their own UFAs.

The market for those players will vary. Shattenkirk is likely to receive a lucrative deal with the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning speculated as the top teams most interested in his services.

Shattenkirk said in May he wanted a bigger role for whatever team he ends up playing for. He was part of the third defensive pairing in Washington next to Brooks Orpik.

“I want to challenge myself to become an elite defenseman and I have to assume a bigger role and more responsibility,” Shattenkirk said.

The Capitals need a top four defenseman, but won’t have the cap room to sign Shattenkirk or Alzner if they extend all their RFAs. Alzner, Sportsnet reported, has been linked to the Montreal Canadiens.

Washington still needs to fill Schmidt’s absence. There are options on the roster, possibly Orpik or some of the Capitals‘ younger prospects, but MacLellan told reporters in Chicago, they have a “job opening.”

“We don’t have a plan,” MacLellan said. “We’re going to look at young guys, look at free agents. Maybe the trade market. We’ll pursue all avenues and see what we come up with.”

Elsewhere, Williams has a growing list of teams interested in signing him. TSN”s Darren Dreger reported “no fewer than 10 teams” are lining up to sign the 35-year-old.

Williams said he would like to be back with the Capitals, but economics might play a factor. Williams was a calming veteran presence during his time in Washington and provided a nice option at right wing on the second line.

“My drive is there — it’s always there,” Williams said. ” I think the majority of people saw that this year and I don’t think it’s something I’m ever going to lose. We’ll see what happens.”

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