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Caps Strike (Black and) Gold in Free Agency

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A look at a few shrewd moves that have paid off

Washington Capitals v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

“In general I think it is going to be tight. I think it is going to be hard for cap teams to create their lineup, to create depth in their lineup. We do have a little room to make some signings. So we’re going to see what happens with the trade market at the draft and then proceed through free agency and try to do the best job we can. Obviously, there’s going to be some tough decisions that have to be made. We’ll try to do our best to make the right ones.”

That was Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan back in August, looking forward to the strangest NHL offseason in recent memory and reflecting upon another disappointing playoff exit (and the dismissal of his head coach as a result). Not too long after, a large chunk of that “little room” went to re-signing Brenden Dillon, and the 2021 Caps were looking a lot like the 2019-20 Caps, save for the departure of one hairy goaltender, a couple of ancient veteran free agents moving on, and, of course, a new bench boss.

A few days later, the Caps made their splash (more of a ripple, really) in free agency when they signed defenseman Justin Schultz to a two-year, $8-million deal and recently bought-out netminder Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year, $1.5-million pact (ostensibly to challenge Ilya Samsonov for the starter’s job and to add veteran leadership to a team whose culture was slipping - his word, not mine). The Caps then added Conor Sheary in late December (one year, $735,000), re-signed depth forward Daniel Sprong (two years, $1.45-million) in September, and a couple of taxi squad-type signings and that was that.

Well, almost. We all know what happened with Lundqvist (who we perhaps shouldn’t count out quite yet), which left MacLellan scrambling for that veteran presence, one he found a week later when he signed Zdeno Chara to a one-year, $795,000 deal which has to be one of the best dollars-per-inch contracts in League history.

Schultz. Sheary. Sprong. Chara. These were the significant (to the extent they could be characterized as such) additions to a roster that looked utterly lost, old and slow in the playoff bubble just a few months prior. Four guys... who made names for themselves wearing that torturous color combination of black and gold - Schultz and Sheary winning two Stanley Cups with the Penguins (on the first of which Sprong was a regular-season teammate), and Chara having a legendary career (and a Cup) for the Bruins.

Fast forward to the midpoint of this season and the Caps find themselves with the opportunity tonight to move into first place in the MassMutual East Division. And while we don’t want to undersell the tremendous coaching job Peter Laviolette has done, or the damn-near heroic effort Vitek Vanecek has given the team in net, those four free agents have been key components of this Capitals resurgence.

Chara and Schultz are fourth and sixth on the team, respectively, in average ice time and first and second, respectively, in plus-minus. Chara is second in average ice time on the League’s 11th-rated penalty kill, Schultz second among defenseman on the circuit’s 9th-ranked power play. Sheary and Sprong (about whom we warned you!) are tied for fifth on the team with a half-dozen goals apiece. Sprong leads the entire NHL (741 skaters with more than 25 minutes played) in goals/60 at five-on-five, and he and Sheary rank fifth and sixth in the League, respectively, in cost per goal among players on standard contracts (Nic Dowd, incidentally, ranks eighth there). Put simply (and admittedly lacking the context of deployment), the Caps are a better team with these guys on the ice than off:

via HockeyViz

(Hilariously, and almost as if to prove the point, in a miniscule two-minute sample of the four of them on the ice together, the Caps have outshot opponents 4-0.)

Four contributors giving the Caps more than an hour of combined ice time per night, productive minutes on the scoresheet and elsewhere, all at a total cap hit of $6.255 million, or roughly what Ottawa’s giving Matt Murray (to keep with our “former Penguins” trend).

“We do have a little room to make some signings.... Obviously, there’s going to be some tough decisions that have to be made. We’ll try to do our best to make the right ones.”

So far, so good. And who knows... the last time Brian MacLellan turned black and gold to red, white and blue, that alchemy worked out just fine.