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Capitals eyeing forward in free agency, GM says

Seek replacement for Burakovsky after trade, not expected to re-sign pending UFA Connolly

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals are exploring the unrestricted free agent market to replace forward Andre Burakovsky, who they traded to the Colorado Avalanche on Friday, as their third-line right wing, general manager Brian MacLellan said Saturday.

MacLellan said he has already been active during the free agent interview period leading up the market opening at noon July 1.

"I think free agency would be the initial spot we'd be looking," he said. "We'll see if we can find a guy at the right salary level there that provides us with a good two-way game, and if we don't, then we'll move on from that."

MacLellan did not discuss which right wings he has been pursuing; potential targets could include Joonas Donskoi of the San Jose Sharks, Ryan Dzingel of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Micheal Ferland of the Carolina Hurricanes, Brandon Tanev of the Winnipeg Jets, Wayne Simmonds of the Nashville Predators and Richard Panik of the Arizona Coyotes, who each can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Burakovsky, who can become a restricted free agent July 1, had 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 76 regular-season games and two points (one goal, one assist) in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games this season. The 24-year-old finished the season on the fourth line and averaged 11:08 in ice time per game (11th among Capitals forwards), but he would have moved up to the third line to replace forward Brett Connolly, who is not expected to re-sign with Washington after becoming an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Connolly, who signed a two-year, $3 million contract (average annual value of $1.5 million) with the Capitals on July 1, 2017, is likely to receive a significant raise after the 27-year-old set NHL career highs with 22 goals, 24 assists and 46 points in 81 regular-season games.

"He's still exploring his opportunities," MacLellan said of Connolly. "I think maybe at some point, he's probably going to get priced out of our range. It appears to be heading that way."

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The Capitals are tight against the NHL salary cap and need to set aside some space to re-sign pending restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana. Moving Burakovsky gave them a little more room. Washington submitted a one-year, $3.25 million qualifying offer to Vrana on Tuesday to retain its right to match any offer sheet he might receive.

The Capitals traded Burakovsky to the Avalanche for a second-round pick and a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and forward Scott Kosmachuk, who isn't expected to be re-signed when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. Although the Capitals would have liked to keep Burakovsky to play on their third line, MacLellan said he requested a trade to a team that would use him in a top-six role.

MacLellan said he attempted to trade Burakovsky, selected by Washington with the No. 23 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25 and during the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver last weekend, but he didn't find a return to his liking until Friday.

"He wants to play higher, he deserves an opportunity to play higher to show it, but still, we have an organization, we have a team, we put a lot into developing him," MacLellan said.

In addition to filling the right-wing spot on their third line, the Capitals would also like to fortify their fourth line. MacLellan said they won't re-sign forward Dmitrij Jaskin, who will become an unrestricted free agent after Washington did not make him a qualifying offer to retain his restricted free agent rights.

Re-signing forward Devante Smith-Pelly, another potential unrestricted free agent, also appears unlikely. A hero when he scored three goals in five games in the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights last season, the 27-year-old struggled this season with eight points (four goals, four assists) in 54 regular-season games and ended up with Hershey in the American Hockey League for 20 games before being recalled during the playoffs.

"I haven't talked to him recently," MacLellan said. "I talked to him at the beginning of free agency."

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MacLellan said contract talks have been progressing toward a likely shorter bridge deal with Vrana, who finished third on the Capitals with an NHL career-high 24 goals and sixth with 47 points in 82 regular-season games. MacLellan said there was a possibility of a longer-term contract with Vrana, but with the NHL salary cap set at $81.5 million for 2019-20, a bridge deal is the best option.

"Originally, we thought we could do a term deal because we had an ($83 million) number that we used all year," MacLellan said. "We bumped that down to $82.5 and then that last little bump down (to $81.5 million) kind of squeezed us a little bit."

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