The rumor mill has been rife with reports in the days and weeks leading up to the official end of the 2018-19 season, but now that the Stanley Cup has been awarded – congratulations, again, to the St. Louis Blues – we finally have our first one-for-one swap of the summer. The thing is, it’s not a trade anyone would have expected, nor is it a deal that includes any of the players whose move has been speculated for some time.
On Friday morning, the Capitals and Flyers announced that they have exchanged blueliners, with Washington sending 32-year-old rearguard Matt Niskanen to Philadelphia and receiving 29-year-old bruiser Radko Gudas in return. The one-for-one has an added wrinkle, however, as the Flyers have also retained a hair more than $1 million of Gudas’ $3.35-million cap hit, which is set to expire following this season. In addition to paying part of Gudas’ salary, Philadelphia will also assume the entirety of the two years at $5.75 million that remain on Niskanen’s contract.
It’s true that the writing was likely on the wall concerning Niskanen’s move out of Washington and that it has been for some time. Despite his regular- and post-season impact for the Capitals during the 2017-18 Stanley Cup run, during which he was often the second-best and sometimes the best blueliner on the ice for the Capitals, Niskanen struggled this season. His average ice time fell below 22 minutes for the first time in his five seasons in Washington, and while he was still second on the depth chart, some felt the signs of decline were there. Offensively, he had his worst output since the 2011-12 campaign. Defensively, he had an abysmal 46.9 goals for percentage at 5-on-5, down drastically from 56.8 percent the campaign prior and 59.6 percent the season before that.
But what really seemed to seal Niskanen’s fate, or at least indicate that a move of at least one defender wasn’t too far in the offing, was the signing of Nick Jensen to a four-year, $10-million extension almost the very instant he was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings ahead of the trade deadline. The signing saw the Capitals’ spend on five blueliners – Niskanen, Jensen, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny – climb to $23.85 million. That created a financial logjam, one that needed to be broken up as it left Washington with less than $10-million in projected cap space this summer. Friday’s trade does exactly that and gives Washington roughly $3.4 million in additional breathing room this off-season while also removing the $5.75 million Niskanen would have been owed next season from their books entirely.
And if you need any indication just how valuable a commodity cap space is in the modern NHL, consider that when teams make an acquisition, no matter how big or small, the focus generally turns to the player. In a statement, the acquiring team will address what a player brings, how he will fit into the lineup or why the organization is happy to have him. And while the Capitals did exactly that – “Radko is a good defensive defenseman that plays a competitive, physical game,” GM Brian MacLellan said in a release – the highlighting of Gudas’ attributes came after a mention of the “financial flexibility” the trade provides Washington as they enter the off-season.
With that, though, comes the expectation that there will be corresponding moves coming down the pike for the Capitals, that Niskanen’s trade out of town was only the first in a series of dominoes that will fall this off-season. Most likely, that means Washington will begin to chip away at new contracts for pending unrestricted free agents Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly.
Hagelin, a deadline acquisition from the Los Angeles Kings, rounded into form late in the season with Washington after a difficult run through his first 38 games of the season. In 20 games with Washington, he scored three goals and 11 points in a bottom-six role, and the speedy winger contributed another point – an assist – in the Capitals’ first-round defeat at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes. Hagelin was a fairly clear-cut target in Washington, and reports are that the Capitals are working on keeping him off the open market.
It stands to reason that the same goes for Connolly, too, who had a breakout campaign in Washington. Entering this season on the heels of back-to-back 15-goal campaigns, across which he registered 50 points, Connolly exploded in his contract year with a 22-goal, 47-point output and added two playoff goals for good measure. Among pending UFAs, Connolly is tied for seventh in goals and 10th in points, and he’d likely be a mid-range target for teams looking to add scoring. Retaining him won’t come cheap, and you can be certain he’ll be looking for a raise from the $1.5 million he earned on his now-expired two-year, $3-million deal.
Other concerns for the Capitals beyond Hagelin and Connolly include restricted free agents Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitrij Jaskin and Chandler Stephenson, as well as RFA blueliner Christian Djoos. Washington could also begin work on extensions for Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, both of whom have the ability to become UFAs after the 2019-20 campaign.
As for the Flyers, the deal is one that comes with potential upside. While it can be argued that Gudas was more effective than Niskanen last season, and while they’ve assumed a greater financial burden in acquiring the veteran defenseman, he’s not far removed from playing some of the best hockey of his career. If Niskanen can return to form after a difficult season, Philadelphia will have added a stellar 20-minute blueliner who is cost-controlled for the next two seasons.
Make no mistake, the Flyers have the cap space to assume the cap hit, too. Even after adding Niskanen, Philadelphia is projected to have upwards of $30-million in cap space this summer. So, just as much as it will be worth keeping an eye on what comes next for the Capitals, watch out for the Flyers. Philadelphia has never been afraid to spend, and acquiring Niskanen might just be the tip of the off-season iceberg.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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