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Capitals paid big for Carlson, but the cap concerns are minimal going forward

John Carlson’s eight-year, $64-million deal makes him one of the league’s highest-paid defensemen next season, but the Capitals could afford to make the move given the signing shouldn’t result in any major cap-related sacrifices down the road.

Strike one of the big names off of the free agent board for July 1. Amid reports that the Capitals and John Carlson were close on a new deal that would keep pending unrestricted free agent off the market, Washington announced Sunday they have re-signed the No. 1 defenseman to an eight-year pact.

“John has been an exceptional and consistent player for our franchise and has blossomed into being one of the top defensemen in the NHL,” said Capitals GM Brian MacLellan in a release. “Defenseman like John are a rare commodity in our league and, at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime. As a right-handed defenseman, John plays in all key situations and has contributed greatly to our team’s success on the special teams. We are pleased for both parties to have come to an agreement and for him to continue his great career as a Washington Capital.”

Of course, reaching that agreement didn’t come cheap. For months now, it’s been known Carlson would command a pretty penny if he made it this close to free agency, and he did nothing but increase his worth over the course of the post-season. After setting career marks with 17 goals and 68 points during the regular season, he added dollar signs to his deal with a five-goal, 20-point playoff in which he played a crucial part in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory. He more than doubled every other Washington blueliner in playoff scoring, and at 25:38 per game, he boasted a higher average ice time than any other Capitals skater.

So, to see the $64-million price tag attached to Carlson’s new deal wasn’t surprising, nor is it shocking Carlson, as a top-tier free agent defenseman in a thin market, will now become one of the highest-paid rearguards in the league. Barring some free agency lunacy, Carlson will begin the 2018-19 campaign with the second-highest cap hit of defender. Only P.K. Subban’s contract, which carries an annual cap hit of $9 million, exceeds Carlson’s deal, and Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman shares second spot with Carlson at $8 million annually. Carlson does, however, have a leg up on all but six NHLers next season in that he’ll be pulling down $12 million in salary. Only Jamie Benn, Connor McDavid and Carey Price will earn more next season, while Carlson’s salary ties him with Anze Kopitar, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Often times, though, we tend to associate these type of bank-busting pacts as fine short-term agreements that become untenable in keeping a successful team together. The Capitals have a different reality, however. Because while Carlson’s $64-million contract and $8-million AAV make him the second-highest paid player in Washington behind captain Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals are actually fairly well-positioned financially moving forward.

Let’s start on the blueline, where Carlson’s contract is one of three that carries through the 2020-21 campaign. On the back end for at least the next few seasons, he’ll be joined by Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. The former is about to enter the fifth season of a seven-year contract that carries a $5.75-million cap hit and offers Washington good value on a top-four, right-shot blueliner. The latter, meanwhile, has seemingly improved year-over-year for the past three seasons and is now about to enter the second season of a six-year contract that pays $5.1 million annually. If the Capitals can round out their top-four on the back end by re-signing Michal Kempny to a favorable contract or if Washington gets development into a top-four rearguard from Christian Djoos or Madison Bowey, they’ll have one high-priced rearguard with two on solid contracts for the next three seasons, at the very least.

Up front, there is some business that will need addressing with more immediacy, but nothing that should create a financial logjam given that the rise of the salary cap to $79.5 million and the trade that sent Brooks Orpik (along with his $5.5 million cap hit) and Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche. The Capitals are heading into the summer with more than $13 million in spending room, and while Tom Wilson is due a new deal and will be seeking a raise from his $2-million cap hit, he won’t break the bank. And once Wilson’s locked up, there’s nothing incredibly pressing. Next in line will be taking care of the contracts of Andre Burakovsky, who won’t have much of a case for a sizeable raise unless he breaks out this coming campaign, and Jakub Vrana, who could be the next big piece of the offense. But both will be rights-controlled as restricted free agents, and only the former will have the opportunity to go to arbitration. It’s not hard to imagine that come the 2019-20 campaign, the trio of Wilson, Burakovsky and Vrana are locked up in the $9-million range.

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If that’s the case, Washington could enter a crucial summer ahead of the 2020-21 campaign with more than $20 million available under the cap. And why is that off-season so important? Well, for one, Nicklas Backstrom will need a new deal, and the terms of that contract will be dictated in part by the price paid to the likes of John Tavares, Paul Stastny, Tyler Seguin and others in the coming years. For Backstrom to flirt with a $9-million AAV in two years’ time isn’t far-fetched even if he will be a 33-year-old months into his next contract, but add in potential rises in the cap and the Capitals should have no problem getting such a deal done. Braden Holtby will also be set to become a free agent that same summer, however, and will almost assuredly seek an increase on his $6.1-million cap hit. Washington might be able to get away with $8 million on a new deal for Holtby, and if it’s only a short-term contract, prospect Ilya Samsonov could be ready shortly thereafter to snatch the starting job.

And while Capitals fans may be looking at their cap situation and wondering how this all fits, particularly when Ovechkin’s contract is up ahead of the 2021-22 season, consider that the ‘Great Eight’ will be 35 before he takes a single stride on his next contract. And while we’ve seen players earn top dollar on their 35-plus contracts — Joe Thornton signed a one-year, $8-million pact with San Jose and Patrick Marleau has a three-year deal with a $6.25-million cap hit in Toronto — Ovechkin likely isn’t going to command what he could if he were a free agent, say, this off-season. His top-end price will diminish, even if just a little, making a potentially sticky situation less so. Currently with close to $50 million projected for that 2021-22 summer without including a single cent of cap increases, the entire core appears as though it can be kept together without fear of losing a major piece, which is important given Washington’s somewhat thin stock of prospects.

So, while the Capitals may have some work to do to patch and plug the rest of the roster, as well as some moves to make long-term should players break out, nothing about the Carlson contract screams financial headache, and that’s the best possible news for Washington given the major concerns surrounding the deal in the aftermath of their Stanley Cup celebration.

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