John Carlson re-signs with the Caps: What's next?
After trading veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik (and his cap hit) to the Colorado Avalanche, GM Brian MacLellan of the Washington Capitals was optimistic he’d be able to re-sign John Carlson before the most coveted defenseman among unrestricted free agents went to market. “We’re really close,” MacLellan said Friday in Dallas.
He wasn’t kidding. Carlson and the Capitals announced an eight-year, $64 million deal less than 48 hours later, keeping the 28-year-old on the Stanley Cup champions. “Defensemen like John are a rare commodity in our league, and at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime,” MacLellan said.
So do a lot of other teams, who now have to look elsewhere to bolster their blue lines. Here’s where the dominoes fall after the Carlson signing.
What does it mean for the Capitals?
Washington has its core group locked up for at least the next two seasons in Carlson, Alex Ovechkin (signed through 2021), Evgeny Kuznetsov (2025), T.J. Oshie (2025), Nicklas Backstrom (2020) and Braden Holtby (2020). The window to repeat is open, and MacLellan and capologist Don Fishman have a firm handle on their cap number until Backstrom and Holtby get re-upped.
The Capitals now turn to their other free agents, and they should have enough cap space (over $13 million) to retain them. Top-line winger Tom Wilson is a restricted free agent who’ll get a hearty bump from his $2 million cap hit last season. Michal Kempny, a trade deadline acquisition who became Carlson’s steady defensive partner, is an unrestricted free agent whom MacLellan wants to sign.
Once those two are taken care of, the Capitals also have playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly needing a new deal as a restricted free agent. The odd man out, potentially? Veteran center Jay Beagle, 32, who made $1.75 million per year on a three-year term last season but whose position could be transitioned to a younger, cheaper — but undeniably less entertaining — model.
What does this mean for other free agents?
It’s a shame that Mike Green‘s health is a concern for other teams, because he’s the only puck-moving right-handed defenseman on the market who comes anywhere close to replicating Carlson’s skill set. The Detroit Red Wings have offered him contracts of one- and two-year terms, and Green has expressed an interested in remaining in the Motor City. But his stock just jumped with Carlson off the board.
If handedness isn’t a priority for teams, then Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson is going to get some post-Carlson love. TSN’s Bob McKenzie speculated that the 31-year-old blueliner could net $6 million per season from someone, and that was before Carlson went eight over eight.
But the conversation on puck-moving defensemen who could play in the top four might end there, with Islanders free agent Thomas Hickey and Blue Jackets free agent Ian Cole at the front of a pack of depth defensemen who are available.
There are right-handed options among restricted free agents like Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets, Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild and Colin Miller of the Vegas Golden Knights, but that would require an offer sheet and hence a violation of the old-boy-network handshake deal that prevents this valid and constructive mechanism from ever being utilized.
What does it mean for the Erik Karlsson Sweepstakes?
As you can see, the impactful options on defense are limited in the free-agent market. Which means the Erik Karlsson Sweepstakes is more relevant than ever.
The first step in the process this summer will be the Ottawa Senators offering him a contract extension that fits within their desired financial framework, i.e., a low-ball, hometown offer. Carlson’s contract gives GM Pierre Dorion a basis of comparison at best and an excuse for his franchise’s thriftiness at worse.
The next step, assuming Karlsson doesn’t sign an extension, is attempting to trade the 28-year-old star ahead of unrestricted free agency next summer. He has a modified no-trade clause. One assumes teams that were in on Carlson — the Golden Knights and Islanders among them — would be aggressive in trying to acquire Karlsson. But the difference is that Carlson wouldn’t have cost any roster or organizational assets, while Karlsson will fetch a bounty.
As far as what Carlson’s contract means for Karlsson’s next contract … well, it’s really a three-person conversation here, thanks to Drew Doughty.
What does it mean for Drew Doughty?
The most significant impact of the Carlson signing, outside of the Capitals, will be felt by the Los Angeles Kings. Doughty hits unrestricted free agency next summer, and the Kings had had an unwavering commitment to retaining him long-term.
Carlson’s average annual value matches that of San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns ($8 million) but falls behind that of P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators, who carries a $9 million cap hit next season. Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s cap number rises to $8.25 million when his new deal kicks in for the 2019-20 season and beyond.
Given the Carlson deal, and given that Doughty is a demonstrably better defenseman, could we see an AAV of over $10 million for him? Please recall that Doughty has talked about using Karlsson to figure out his price, and vice versa.
“Right now, I guess we’d be gauging off what P.K. makes. I think both of us deserve quite a bit more than that,” Doughty said last year to The Athletic.