After the Washington Capitals’ last start in the first round, general manager (GM) Brian MacLellan can’t afford to make any mistakes this offseason. The 63-year-old is under pressure to pick wisely in the NHL Draft and make savvy moves in free agency to improve his roster ahead of the 2022-23 season.
Related: 5 Washington Capitals Targets With 20th Overall Pick In 2022 NHL Draft
With the Toronto Maple Leafs also heading for a soft reset this summer, MacLellan could find himself signing a handful of players who finished the season at Scotiabank Arena. Here are three Maple Leafs the Capitals could target this summer, including a mix of restricted (RFA) and unrestricted (UFA) free agents.
Rasmus Sandin, left-handed defender, FRG
After giving Mark Giordano a two-year contract extension, the Maple Leafs have a block on the left side of their defense. As a result, Rasmus Sandin will start next season fourth in his strongest position on Toronto’s depth chart.
The 22-year-old faces fierce competition from Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly and Giordano, with fellow southpaw TJ Brodie operating on his offside. Although general manager Kyle Dubas is expected to make changes to his roster, Sandin’s place in the roster isn’t guaranteed.
Muzzin’s 10-team no-trade list — and his popularity within the organization — lessens the likelihood of him being dealt this summer. Rielly and Giordano will also be sticking around as they just signed new deals. Thus, the always impressive Sandin could be on the move during the offseason.
The old 29e The overall pick is a confident, puck-moving defenseman who has reached some important milestones in his development over the past season. He made 51 appearances in 2021-22 and had 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) playing on Toronto’s bottom pair.
If not for the knee injury he suffered in March, Sandin would have played a key role for the Maple Leafs down the stretch and in the playoffs. He’s a goalscoring threat for the future with plenty of untapped potential, as his goal against the Capitals proved:
With Matt Irwin, Michal Kempny and Justin Schultz set to leave the club this summer, Washington has the cap space and roster room to make a move for Sandin – via an offer sheet or a sign and a trade, so he’s definitely a player to watch.
Ilya Mikheyev, Left Winger, UFA
After seeing his team stagnate in the first round of the playoffs, Peter Laviolette will be keen to review his offensive options for next season. Tom Wilson’s injury and Nicklas Backstrom’s chronic hip problems pave the way for new signings to earn the top six roles at DC, with Toronto’s Ilya Mikheyev an intriguing option.
The standby UFA has made leaps and bounds in 2021-22, recording a career-high 32 points (21 goals, 11 assists) in 53 appearances for the Maple Leafs. Mikheyev has also demonstrated his ability to play in a variety of positions, teaming up with Alexander Kerfoot from the penalty spot to devastating effect.
“He’s one of those guys who wants a bigger role,” Keefe said of Mikheyev last season. “It’s a good thing as a coach [because] they crave more, they work for more. I believe in Mickey a lot.
The 27-year-old performed admirably for the Maple Leafs and is a quality fixture at Scotiabank Arena. However, he is awaiting a raise that Toronto capologists will struggle to offer, opening the door to the possibility that he could fit elsewhere in 2022-23. If the Capitals want a quick winger, Mikheyev would be a solid choice.
Ilya Lyubushkin, right-handed defender, UFA
Ilya Lyubushkin quickly became a fan favorite in Leaf Nation after his mid-season trade to the Arizona Coyotes. He made 31 regular season appearances for Toronto, registering six points (two goals, four assists) while moving up and down Keefe’s defensive pairings.
The 28-year-old is a defensive specialist as he’s efficient when using his 6-foot-2 frame to win battles in net, but unimpressive when the puck is on his stick. The hulking Russian is therefore unlikely to get a significant salary increase from his current cap of $1.35 million, making him an attractive under-the-radar option for MacLellan’s Capitals.
Alternative targets on the Toronto Maple Leafs
There are plenty of alternate targets in Washington on the Maple Leafs, starting with UFA goaltender Jack Campbell. After earning $1.65 million per season for the past two campaigns, the 30-year-old is set to claim a significant pay rise and is therefore nowhere near re-signing in Toronto.
Campbell has had a season of ups and downs in 2021-22, his form turning south after his All-Star Weekend appearance. However, his lack of experience as a hardcore starter and high salary demands make him an uncomfortable candidate for the Capitals.
Colin Backwell is another UFA to watch. The 29-year-old is a versatile forward who operates with a spring in his step every time he hits the ice.
Although Blackwell is only 5-foot-9, he makes up for it with sheer determination. He had 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 58 appearances for the Maple Leafs and Seattle Kraken last season and is unlikely to be an expensive comeback for his next club.
Capitals face the offseason
With the level of competition increasing in the Eastern Conference, Washington’s front office is under pressure to find valuable free agent signings this summer. They have plenty of issues to deal with after another first-round outing, starting with their goalkeeping dilemma.
MacLellan’s job security hinges on his ability to navigate the months ahead without error. If he can thread the needle in the draft and free agency, the Capitals could enjoy a rebound year in 2022-23. It’s time for him to deliver.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the pace of the Washington Capitals during THWit covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British ice hockey and world football for many publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with its content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.