- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Washington Capitals were far from the only NHL team that pounced on its targets to open free agency this week.

Edmonton, Ottawa and Columbus all signed marquee free agents, with the latter surprising the league by inking star Johnny Gaudreau to a six-year, $68.25 million deal. 

But the fact that other teams were quick to put pen to paper with free agents made the Capitals’ urgency even more important. It started with the team signing two goaltenders: Darcy Kuemper for $5.25 million per year and Charlie Lindgren to be his backup. Then Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan shored up both the blueline — by signing third-pair defenseman Erik Gustafsson — and the forward group — by re-signing Marcus Johansson and trading for winger Connor Brown

The offseason is far from over, and whether the acquisitions work out for coach Peter Laviolette’s squad won’t be known for years, but the quick moves helped answer some of the organization’s most significant question marks. Laviolette said that Kuemper, who won the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche last season, is a “difference maker.” 

“Darcy’s a veteran goaltender,” Laviolette told reporters Wednesday night. “[Kuemper] had a terrific year, brings a lot of experience and history of playing really well. We’re really excited to have him.”

Lindgren, meanwhile, is a netminder the Capitals targeted due to his reputation as a good locker room presence and because of how he performed in limited action with St. Louis last season. While he’s only started 24 games in his NHL career, Lindgren is a goalie who MacLellan believes has “upside.”

Between Kuemper and Lindgren, MacLellan thinks the Capitals — who may only have a few more years to compete with captain Alex Ovechkin approaching his late 30s — are in a better spot than they were with youngsters Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. 

“We’re going to be more stable now with our tandem we have now,” MacLellan told reporters Wednesday night.

About Samsonov and Vanecek, MacLellan had said before the NHL Draft that both of them would be given qualifying offers. But Vanecek was traded to New Jersey during the draft, and Samsonov was non-tendered and then signed to be Toronto’s No. 2 goalie. MacLellan explained that due to Samsonov’s arbitration rights, the team could’ve gotten “stuck” paying him at a higher salary than they were willing to for a backup.

To close the chapter on the Vanecek-Samsonov era, MacLellan added that he thinks both have futures in the NHL, but he admitted it was “frustrating” that neither could take the reins of the No. 1 job the past two seasons. 

“I guess it’s a little frustrating that I wish one of them would’ve taken over the No. 1 spot. And it seemed like one or the other was going to do it but never quite did it,” MacLellan said. “I think we ran out of time to wait for it. I still think they both have a good future in the NHL. They’re still young, they’re still improving. It’s just a situation where we’ve tried and we don’t have enough time to stick with them both.”

With the glaring goaltending question put to rest, Washington’s biggest conundrum entering the season is the health of its forwards. 

Nicklas Backstrom (hip) and Tom Wilson (knee) will both be out for the beginning of the season — and maybe much more, especially in Backstrom’s case — due to offseason surgeries. Wilson had surgery to repair an ACL tear he suffered in Game 1 of the Capitals’ playoff series versus the Panthers. Backstrom then underwent left hip resurfacing surgery — an invasive surgery that the team said requires a “lengthy recovery process” — after the hip caused him pain throughout the season. 

Carl Hagelin is also recovering from an eye injury that cut short his 2021-22 campaign. The three players combined have a $17.11 million cap hit next season, with Backstrom’s $9.2 million leading the way.

The health concerns for the forwards are a big reason why the Capitals re-signed Johansson and traded for Brown, providing Laviolette much-needed depth to surround Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie

Johansson is returning to Washington on a one-year, $1.1 million deal after the Capitals traded for him at the deadline last season. A versatile forward for Washington from 2010 to 2017, Johansson then bounced around the NHL, playing for five different teams in four years. He recorded three goals and three assists in 18 games for Washington last season, but his biggest score came in Game 3 against the Panthers — the final contest the Capitals would win in the series. 

Meanwhile, Brown is expected to be a key contributor as a right winger. The Capitals gave up a 2024 second-round pick to Ottawa for the 28-year-old. Brown, who has one year remaining on his contract at $3.6 million, scored 10 goals and tallied 29 assists in 64 games for the Senators last season.

The Capitals signed former Blackhawks center Dylan Strome to a one-year, $3.5 million contract on Thursday. Strome, 25, scored a career-high 22 goals and tallied 26 assists last season for Chicago.


• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide