- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2019

Coach Todd Reirden and general manager Brian MacLellan feel confident the Washington Capitals’ “championship window” is still open for a few years. Despite their first-round exit from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals can still point to the 2018 Cup and a string of five 100-point regular seasons as indications they can compete with the best for the imminent future.

For the upcoming offseason, don’t expect the Capitals to make a splashy signing for a superstar, a la John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs last July. It’s been made clear the front office is happy with the Capitals’ core — it wants to fill in the spaces around it.

“I think the margins are where you’re trying to add value as a manager,” MacLellan said in his end-of-season interview Friday. “Can we get a little more offense here? Can we get a little deeper? How do we maintain our depth? I think because every team is so close, any team can beat any team, so it’s important, every personnel decision, how you spend your money.”

Of Capitals players with expiring contracts, re-signing Jakub Vrana is the biggest priority the team has. The 23-year-old established himself as one of Washington’s regular top-six forwards, finishing third on the team with 24 goals. Despite his disappointing, scoreless playoff series against Carolina, Vrana is critical to the Capitals’ future.

As a restricted free agent, the Capitals will extend him a qualifying offer, but the more important step is to negotiate a longer-term deal from there. They went through the same process with Tom Wilson a year ago.



MacLellan said the team is still deciding whether it wants to offer Vrana a long-term deal or a “bridge deal” — a shorter-term contract that essentially says, “Prove to us that you’ll maintain consistently good play, and you’ll be rewarded with a more lucrative contract after this one.”

Vrana was mum about where he stands on his contract situation.

“I’m going to talk to my agent and like I said I’m going to talk to Washington,” Vrana said. “We’re going to discuss what’s going to happen over the summer and prepare for next season so we will see.”

Behind him, it’s almost humorous how all of the team’s main expiring contracts fall into the same positional category. The centers, the goaltenders and most of the defensemen are locked up for now, but Washington has six more wingers besides Vrana entering restricted or unrestricted free agency.

Brett Connolly, who enjoyed a career year statistically with 22 goals, is a tricky case. The Capitals don’t have room for him in their top six, and another team might offer him a top-six role and more money than Washington can spend.

Connolly said he liked how he fit with Washington, but is unsure how the summer will go.

“Hopefully I can be back, but if not, thank you to everybody and you guys, my teammates obviously, coaches, the fans,” Connolly said. “Really, it was the three best years of my life, I would say. Especially winning a championship and just experiencing that is something I’ll never forget.”

Carl Hagelin, acquired midseason from Los Angeles and one of Reirden’s favorites, is a UFA along with Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly. The Capitals will also have to decide whether to extend qualifying offers to RFAs Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin.

What appears to be less of a priority to the front office is locking up Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby. The center and goalie have just one year remaining on their respective contracts.

MacLellan said he will talk to both players and their representation, but was unconcerned with the prospect of extension negotiations trickling into the 2019-20 season.

“We’ll have conversations and if it feels like it’s going in the right direction, then we can get more assertive on it,” MacLellan said.

Both players have spent their entire NHL careers with Washington; Backstrom cracked that “this (team) is all I know.” But before their situations are addressed, the Capitals will be focused on filling in the margins, as MacLellan put it, to position themselves for another run at a title.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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