In the coming weeks, the Washington Capitals will be in the throes of perhaps one of their most challenging summers yet as they explore free agency while facing several key lineup questions. The market is bound to be filled with big names going into the offseason, and one that stands out as a potential solution is Nazem Kadri.
For Washington, one of the biggest question marks surrounds the state of the top-6. Nicklas Backstrom’s future remains in flux, and now, Tom Wilson is set to miss 6-8 months after ACL surgery. This marks two top contributors out of the mix, and also leaves the Capitals without their top tough guy and a versatile player who can log heavy minutes.
Wilson is coming off an All-Star year in 2021-22 that saw him dish a career-high 24 goals, 28 assists and 52 points through 78 games. The 28-year-old was just one of three Capitals (Alex Ovechkin, 50 and Evgeny Kuznetsov, 24) that dished at least 20 goals on the season. He ranked second on the team in goals and fourth in points.
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At the other end of the ice, he was an impact player who engaged in puck battles, blocked shots, killed penalties and logged heavy minutes. Not only that, but Wilson played a much more disciplined and responsible game while still maintaining his “tough guy” status and sticking up for his teammates.
“My game’s kind of changed over the years and more responsibility kind of every year. I think in this league, you have to be improving every offseason,” Wilson said. “You have to be improving, you have to be taking on more responsibility because there’s so many great players that you can’t get complacent, you can’t get comfortable. You just got to keep demanding the best from yourself and pushing yourself forward. And that’s something I’ve tried to do every day since I’ve been in the league.”
In a way, Wilson goes hand-in-hand with Kadri, a pending UFA who is also a known tough guy who plays a risky game and can also be a major difference-maker upfront. Through 62 games this season, Kadri put on a show with a career-high 25 goals and 59 assists for 87 points. He proved to be one of the biggest impact players for the Avs at both ends of the ice and still is as Colorado preps for the Western Conference FInal.
Kadri has a cap hit of $4.5 million this season, but his price tag is likely to go up this offseason, with projections indicating his next contract could play upwards of $8 million.
Though Washington can save space with Wilson and Backstrom potentially on long-term injured reserve, as well as letting names like Justin Schultz and Michal Kempny hit the market, that’s a major asset, and when Backstrom and Wilson are ready to return, there may be a crunch to deal with. Plus, with the team also looking to add a proven No. 1 netminder, going all-in on one top-6 center may not be the logical next step.
Then comes the question of age. Kadri is approaching 32, and the Capitals want to inject more youth into the lineup. Still, there’s no questioning that Kadri can continue to put up points despite his age. But if the team’s goal is to get younger, then signing Kadri for big money may not be the right move. Plus, Connor McMichael is expected to get a bigger opportunity at center next season, and bringing in Kadri may complicate that chance.
Still, there is upside to making a splash. Washington has suffered four consecutive first-round exits, and in the past years, hasn’t gone all-in in free agency amid cap crunches. There is nothing to lose if the Capitals do go for a big name, and if Backstrom does miss significant time, a name like Kadri could come in and fill that major void and also help ignite the power play, which struggled for a lot of the season. Kadri can also bring Wilson’s physicality and win battles in the neutral and defensive zones. He is not a proven penalty killer but could adapt. He averaged 28 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game this season.
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From the sound of Brian MacLellan’s media day comments, Washington’s priority will be in net this offseason, and with the team wanting to give young guys like Aliaksei Protas, Joe Snively and more a bigger opportunity at the NHL level, going all-in for a top center may have to wait. Taking that into account, the team will have to get more from the likes of Anthony Mantha and Lars Eller, and also see T.J. Oshie and Conor Sheary build off strong campaigns. A 100 percent healthy Oshie should be able to still contribute and put up top-6 numbers. The same can be said for Anthony Manhta Mantha, who started heating up a bit.
Still, regardless of what comes next, one thing is certain. And that is that the Capitals are in for a big test this offseason.