Top 5 Unrestricted Free Agent Forward Targets For The Capitals 2024 Offseason

Now that the 2023-24 NHL season has come to an end for the Washington Capitals, all eyes are now on General Manager Brian MacLellan’s strategy and execution of improving the roster in the twilight of the Alex Ovechkin era. A large point of emphasis for improving the forward group will be based on adding goal scoring and play-making abilities to the top six.

What's Wrong With The Capitals? Players Blunt, Cite 'No Margin For Error'  As Team Digs In With Losing Streak At 6 Games & Playoff Spot Distant - The  Hockey News Washington Capitals News, Analysis and More

In this post, we’ll take a look at the top five free agent forward targets for the Capitals that fit the mold of player that the Capitals need to add, while also being under 30 years of age. We want to make sure that the Capitals are adding players that fit their competitive window and age group instead of adding more veterans (like Max Paccioretty last summer). Additionally, we’ll set some context on what the Capitals actually need in terms of skill set and the roster construction entering the summer.

Roster Construction and Cap Situation – Capitals

Alex Ovechkin, Caps pull out 2-1 win over Canucks | Reuters

For context, the Capitals finished 29th in the NHL in five-on-five goals scored with 143 and 28th overall in all situations with 216 goals scored. Although Ovechkin turned up his goal scoring late in the season, the Capitals ended the season with only Ovechkin (31 goals) and Dylan Strome (27 goals) finishing with more than 20 goals in the campaign. Anthony Mantha scored 20 goals this season with the Caps, but was traded away at the deadline. This is evidence that the Capitals sorely need another scoring threat, since relying on Ovechkin to carry the goal scoring at 38 years old is not a sustainable strategy moving forward.

As it stands today, the Capitals will enter the off-season with $15,885,000 in cap space with the new salary cap ceiling projected to be $87.7M. That $15.885M in cap will be further reduced since Connor McMichael and Beck Malentsyn (who are both restricted free agents) will need new contracts.

Evolving-Hockey projects a new contract for McMichael to be a two year contract that carries a $2,027,000 cap hit and Malenstyn with a three year contract with a cap hit of $1,736,000. If we assume those are the contracts that those two players are signed to, the Caps would have $10,308.667 in cap space entering the summer.

On top of that, the Capitals will have a wait-and-see approach with TJ Oshie’s future this off-season, which feels a lot like the strategy they took with Nicklas Backstrom last summer. If Oshie were to retire or be added to the long-term injury list, the Caps would have $16,058,667 in cap space this summer.

With the players available to them, here’s a possible lineup (including McMichael and Malenstyn being signed to their projected contracts, as well as including Oshie): [Click to enlarge]

There are a few areas the Caps could address for the forward group in free agency: adding a top-six center to lessen the burden on younger centers like Hendrix Lapierre and Connor McMichael; a scoring winger that would push players like Aliaksei Protas and Ivan Miroshnichenko down the lineup, which would add depth; and true playmakers to help the power play be more effective. With that, we can’t assume that the Caps will use all of their cap space to address needs up front, since more depth and talent is needed for the defensive corps too.

5. LW Anthony Duclair

Anthony Duclair: Bio, Stats, News & More - The Hockey Writers

Duclair is an intriguing option as a scoring winger for the Capitals. While he’s not much of a playmaker (18 assists in the 2023-24 season), he was an effective goal scorer with 24 tucks this season. He’s also bounced around the league quite a bit, already playing for nine teams in the NHL despite only being 28 years old. Here are some key metrics from the past season, while playing for the San Jose Sharks and the Tampa Bay Lightning:

To no one’s surprise, Duclair’s underlying metrics really shot up after being traded to a solid Lightning squad from the basement-dwelling San Jose Sharks. Duclair ended his time in San Jose with 16 goals, 11 assists and 27 points in 56 games, but scored 8 goals, 7 assists and 15 points in 17 regular season games with the Lightning. On top of that, Duclair scored none of his points during the power play with the Lightning, where he only received 19:28 of time on ice on the power play. While the Caps need to add some scoring ability to the power play, they also need to bolster scoring during five-on-five play.

Evolving Hockey’s contract projection for Duclair is a 4 year deal that carries a $4,896,000 cap hit.

4. C/RW Elias Lindholm

Grading the Elias Lindholm trade: Canucks nab ideal 2C, Flames add significant assets - Daily Faceoff

Earlier this season, when Calgary put Lindholm on the trade block, there were a few Caps fans that were clamoring to acquire his services. Lindholm checks a couple of boxes for the Caps: positional flexibility (he can play both center and wing effectively) and scoring ability. Although Lindholm is coming off a relatively down year for his standards (15 goals, 29 assists, 44 points), he has a history of high scoring outputs.

In the 2021-22 season, he potted 42 goals and 40 assists. Since he’s only 29 years old, he’s still in his prime years. Here’s some key metrics from the past season, with time spent between Calgary and Vancouver:

Interestingly enough, Lindholm’s metrics didn’t really deviate much after being traded from the Flames to the Canucks, even though the quality of those teams was quite drastic. I wouldn’t put too much weight into his underlying metric performance this season, considering throughout his career, he’s always posted rather strong underlying possession metrics.

Lindholm would be an expensive option, with Evolving Hockey projecting his next contract to be a seven year deal that carries a $7,935,000 cap hit.

3. LW Teuvo Teravainen

Carolina Hurricanes: Teravainen's 2019-20 Season Outlook

After a relatively down year in the 2022-23 season, Teravainen had a bounce-back season in 2023-24, posting 25 goals and 28 assists for 53 points in 76 games played this season. On top of that, Teravainen has always had strong underlying metrics (as most Carolina Hurricanes players have):

In his eight-year career, Teravainen has had four 20+ goal seasons, a 70-point season, two 60-point seasons, and one 50-point season. Teravainen would be a coveted addition to the lineup, especially as a playmaker on the power play.

Evolving Hockey projects a five year contract with a cap hit of $6,774,000 for Teravainen in free agency.

2. LW Jake Guentzel

Jake Guentzel keeps getting better - PensBurgh

The only reason Guentzel isn’t the top option on the list for the Capitals is due to the top UFA forward having both positional flexibility and a career year in goal scoring. Guentzel would be a coveted addition to the Caps roster due to his high rate of goal scoring.

In 67 games played this season, Guentzel posted 30 goals and 47 assists for 77 points. If we extrapolate out for a full 82 game season, Guentzel would have finished with nearly 37 goals and 57 assists for 94 points. That’s exactly the type of scoring output the Capitals have been missing.

Here’s Guentzel’s underlying metric performance in the 2023-24 season with both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Carolina Hurricanes:

Guentzel parlayed a strong analytical performance in underlying metrics with a under-performing Pittsburgh squad into an elite performance with the Carolina Hurricanes. He displays a high level of finishing ability (when we compare the difference between expected goals for percentage (xGF%) and goals for percentage (GF%).

This elite scoring ability will pay immediate dividends for the Capitals and their roster construction, as well as lessening the scoring burden on Ovechkin, where he needed to be the Caps’ top scoring option at 38 years old.

Evolving Hockey projects Guentzel’s next contract to be a seven year contract that carries a $9,635,000 cap hit.

1. RW/C Sam Reinhart

Sam Reinhart scores 2 to reach 40 goals, Panthers beat Canadiens 4-3 in shootout - The San Diego Union-Tribune

Reinhart is coming off of a career year in goal scoring with the Florida Panthers, posting 57 goals and 37 assists for 94 points in 82 games played in the 2023-24 season. Not only was this a career best year for Reinhart in goal scoring, he bested his previous career high in goals by 24 goals.

Reinhart also can play both center and wing, which adds some positional flexibility. This is needed since the Capitals will need to have spots open in the lineup for the likes of Ryan Leonard and Ivan Miroshnichenko moving forward.

Here’s Reinhart’s underlying metric performance during the 2023-24 season:

Ultimately, it’s no surprise that Reinhart’s underlying performance was borderline elite. On top of that, his finishing ability was extremely strong due to his GF% outpacing his xGF% performance. The Panthers were more than likely to control play while Reinhart was on the ice.

Although Reinhart would be my top pick for forward additions this summer, there’s two complications. One, it’s more than likely the Panthers will do everything they can to retain his services long-term. Two, he’s going to be really pricey coming off of a near 60 goal season, with Evolving Hockey projecting his next contract to be a seven year deal with a cap hit of $10,890,000.

Takeaways

We only addressed free agent forwards in this post, so we don’t exactly have a clear picture of all of the options that the Capitals could explore this off-season. With some uncertainty in personnel (like Oshie’s future), the Capitals could be a bit more conservative in the free agency market, but explore more options in the trade market to bring in a talented scoring forward (or two).

On top of that, this is one of the first summers in recent memory where the Capitals actually have had ample cap space to make moves. This will be a very impactful off-season in terms of the future of the organization, especially in the post-Ovechkin era. The real question is, does MacLellan take the retooling of this roster slow and try to add more young talent to grow with the team under Spencer Carbery’s tutelage, or does he get aggressive and add some win-now talent in free agency? Time will tell.

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