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Capitals Trade or Free Agency: Targets to Improve Top 6



Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (88) against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Above all else, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan wants to improve at the top of the depth chart.

“We’re still trying to make a change or changes in our top six, or find a way to create something,” MacLellan said at June’s NHL Draft. “We’ll see if we can make it happen or not. Trade, yes…or free agency. We’ll look at both opportunities.”

Since free agency opened on July 1, the team’s lone addition to the top six has been Max Pacioretty, a 34-year-old winger emerging from two torn Achilles’ tendons in 12 months. Pacioretty is expected to miss the start of the upcoming season as he continues to work his way back, leaving the team with no major addition come the Oct. 13 regular season opener.

Pacioretty came at a bargain, which was necessary as the Capitals’ salary cap situation is cause for concern. Armed today with no cap space according to CapFriendly, the team still has two roster spots to fill to get up to the maximum 23.

Adding a top six forward would bring them one player closer, but it’s a move obviously easier said than done. Here’s a look at some potential Capitals’ targets.

William Nylander

Nylander would be a best-case scenario for the Capitals, even if DeBrincat was still on the table. One of the league’s top offensive players, his 87 points last season were 12 more than that of Capitals’ leader Alex Ovechkin, while his 40 goals were nearly double that of Dylan Strome, Washington’s second-highest goal-scorer.

Currently in the midst of a contract negotiation with the Maple Leafs — one in which the two sides are $2 million apart, according to TSN’s Chris Johnston — new Toronto general manager Brad Treliving could look to move the young winger now and maximize the team’s return with one year left of Nylander’s deal.

At 27, Nylander would inject critical youth at the top of the Capitals’ depth chart, but a lot would need to fall into place before that could happen. Washington — who currently has $1 million in cap space according to CapFriendly — would likely need to deal high-upside prospects simply to unload the contracts necessary to absorb Nylander’s near-$7 million cap hit this season in addition to dealing the proper value to acquire Nylander. The Capitals would then still need to create additional cap space to extend Nylander long term which, in all, could be too much effort for the team to be willing to take on.

Travis Konecny

Konecny, the target of countless rumors since Danny Briere took over as the Flyers general manager in March, could find himself the next one shipped out of Philadelphia, following defenseman Ivan Provorov and forward Kevin Hayes as the team eyes a rebuild.

A 26-year-old right winger who averaged a point per game last season, Konecny checks off a lot of the Capitals’ boxes. He would be the youngest of the team’s top six forwards, save for fellow 26-year-old Dylan Strome, and would add another strong scoring option — now and into the future.

Konecny is under contract through the 2024-25 season, with a $5.5 million cap hit each of the next two seasons. He’s a tad cheaper than Nylander, which makes it easier to absorb his cap hit, but the Capitals would still need to clear the necessary cap space.

Tomas Tatar

Unlike the others on this list, the 32-year-old Tatar is the lone free agent on this list — making it much easier for the Capitals to acquire his services. The team would still need to shed cap (Evolving Hockey projected a four-year, $4.3 million contract before the start of free agency), but would not have to give up the assets necessary to acquire a high-end forward like Nylander via trade.

Tatar would do little to assist the team’s pursuit of getting younger, but he would be expected to make an impact from Day 1 as a 12-year NHL veteran. He tallied 48 points — 20 goals, 28 assists — in 82 games last season, which would have been the Capitals’ fourth-best offensive output last season.

Kevin Labanc

Labanc’s name has already come up in trade talks, with the Sharks reportedly discussing a one-for-one swap with the Canucks for defenseman Tyler Myers earlier in the offseason. That, combined with only one year remaining on his contract, makes him perhaps the most cost-effective option on this list.

The 27-year-old is four years removed from the best season of his career, but he was still a productive option in San Jose last season by recording 33 points — 15 goals, 18 assists — in 72 games.

Jared Serre covers the Washington Capitals for Washington Hockey Now. He is a graduate of West Virginia University.