Given that he spent more time watching as a healthy scratch than playing late in the regular season and into the playoffs, Jeff Halpern already knew he likely wasn’t returning to Washington next season.
So when General Manager George McPhee called Halpern recently to inform him the Capitals wouldn’t try to re-sign him, the veteran centerman wasn’t truly surprised. Halpern, 36, is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
“I just think how the last 20 games went, it was there,” Halpern said in a phone interview Friday. “You do your part and see where you fit in and I think I was able to do what I was brought in to do when I was given an opportunity to play. I was happy with how I played this year and when I talked to George, he agreed, but going into next year that spot has kind of been filled.”
A Potomac, Md., native, Halpern signed a one-year deal as an unrestricted free agent last summer for a second stint with his hometown team. He was brought in to anchor the fourth line, take key faceoffs and contribute on the penalty kill.
Through the first five months of the season, Halpern did just that. He boasted a team-best 58.3 percent success rate on draws, fifth best among faceoff leaders in the NHL, and in the early stages of Dale Hunter’s tenure he garnered promotions to the top two lines.
But as Hunter grew increasingly comfortable with Jay Beagle, Halpern’s role gradually diminished. He was scratched in 12 of the final 15 regular season games and the first 12 playoff contests, only getting in the postseason lineup after Beagle broke his left foot in Game 5 against New York.
Halpern made it clear he wants to continue playing, but knows that it might take some time for him to land somewhere this summer.
“I have every intention of playing next year,” Halpern said. “I think at this stage I fill a certain role on a team and when teams are planning for a year, I think there will be a lot that can use what I’m able to do and how I play. But those things, they take time to play out over the draft, the first waves of free agency – it will be a lot of wait-and-see.”
While his second tour with his hometown team didn’t have a storybook ending, Halpern said he was glad to have the opportunity to rejoin the Capitals at this stage of the franchise’s development after being part of the organization during a different era at the start of his career.
“I love seeing how the Caps have grown and how the community has embraced them,” Halpern said. “It was great to jump back into that, it was a special time to be able to come back. As a player, you always want to leave an impression — you want it to be so they can’t live without you; that’s probably the most bittersweet pill to take.”
As for what the future might hold for the Capitals, Halpern said he expects them to be right back in the mix among the top teams in the league.
“The pieces are in place to win a championship,” Halpern said. “Sometimes teams break in, they break through in one year and win. Sometimes you have to keep knocking on the door. You make mistakes and there are lessons to be learned as you go, but you keep knocking.”
Halpern is the latest unrestricted free agent from the 2011-12 Capitals’ roster, who has confirmed he won’t be returning. Earlier this week, goaltender Tomas Vokoun was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, with whom he signed a two-year deal, and Mike Knuble said that Washington will not bring him back for the 2012-13 campaign.