RUSSELL: Caps improve despite losing Connolly


Another one bites the dust.

No, not the awesome old-school tune from Queen, but another member of the Capitals' Stanley Cup-winning team is now gone.

Brett Connolly is heading to the Florida Panthers, so the Caps will see him plenty. He joins a team with some good young talent that gave the Caps fits last year and also added two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky in the pipes, among others.
Connolly, a 22-goal scorer last year and the man who set up Lars Eller’s tap-in for the game-winning goal in Las Vegas to win the Stanley Cup is just the latest to leave.
Since the Caps won Lord Stanley, they’ve said good-bye to Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Philipp Grubauer, Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky, Alex Chiasson, Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert, and Mitch Korn.
On Monday, they continued their post-Stanley Cup transition phase into 2019-20 by attempting to replace Connolly and Burakovsky with a trio of wingers: Richard Panik, last of the Arizona Coyotes, Garnet Hathaway, who was with Calgary, and forward Brendan Leipsic, who played for the Vancouver Canucks and LA Kings last year.

Before we get to the why – here’s the what: The Capitals once again got better after these moves, in my opinion.  

It’s not exactly an even swap right now, but it’s in the ballpark. These moves almost surely close the door on free agent Devante Smith-Pelly’s time here in Washington.

Losing Connolly sucks. He re-built his career here in Washington after he was a failed top-10 pick. The truth is he probably hit his ceiling here and it’s hard to see him getting 25-plus goals with the Panthers.

Panik had 14 goals and 19 assists last year in Arizona in 75 games. He has 159 points in 410 career games, which is not great, but he adds other elements.

“You can bump him up, you can play him in the top-six a little bit. He can score. He can do some work on the PP and the penalty kill. His 5-on-5 production is pretty solid,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan told Chad Dukes on 106.7 The Fan Monday afternoon.

To MacLellan’s point, 11 of Panik’s 75 career goals were scored on the power play and overall, he’s a +3 player in his career. He also has 10 game-winning goals.

Panik is also going to bring a little more speed than Connolly had and is cheaper. Panik signed a 4-year, $11 million deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $2.75 million. Connolly also signed a four-year deal with reported terms between a $3.25 - $3.5 million AAV.  

Essentially, Connolly’s days in Washington were better than Panik’s most recent performance, but the newest Cap did once score 22 goals in a season with Chicago, and Washington saved at least $500,000 per year on their cap.

That allowed MacLellan and the Caps to sign a physical forward and fourth-line winger in the 27-year old Hathaway to a four-year, $6 million deal with an AAV of $1.5 million. Hathaway scored 11 goals with 8 assists last year in Calgary. Hathaway is a physical player (200 hits, 27th most in NHL) and his shot percentage was 14.3, a better mark than snipers like Gabriel Landeskog, Anze Kopitar, and William Karlson.

One of Hathaway’s goals last year for Calgary came in Washington on February 1.

Washington also added Leipsic, who had seven goals and 23 points in 62 games combined with the Canucks and then Los Angeles last season. He signed a one-year deal. Four of his 23 points were on the power play, including a goal.

Contract terms were not available as of Monday evening for Leipsic, but the combined figure for Panik, Hathaway, and Leipsic figures to be a total of about $5 million against the cap in 2019-20. That leaves the Caps enough room to sign Jakub Vrana to a bridge deal worth in the neighborhood of $3 – $3.5 million AAV and still have a little bit of room to possibly bring back Chandler Stephenson or Christian Djoos.

If you combine the production of Panik, Hathaway, and Leipsic just from last year, you get 32 goals and 43 assists for a total of 75 points. If we subtract Connolly, Burakovsky and Smith-Pelly, the Caps are going to miss out on 38 goals and 41 assists or 79 points.

A mostly even swap but Burakovsky, Connolly, and Smith-Pelly would have cost the Caps north of $7.5 million. Overall the Caps figure to save about $2 million and possibly more on their cap sheet, which is enormously important because Washington, like most teams, was operating under an original $83 million salary cap that was chopped down league-wide to about $81.5 million.

In today’s NHL, with a hard salary cap and no phony money like the NFL has, the hard-core financial numbers are just as important if not more important than the numbers that most fans care about.

That’s why the Caps are better today than they were Monday morning. 

Follow Chris Russell on Twitter.