There was little expectation that either of the Capitals’ two prominent unrestricted free agents would return to Washington next season, and only a few hours into NHL free agency it was official: neither Mike Ribeiro nor Matt Hendricks would return.
Ribeiro, 33, signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Phoenix Coyotes that was beyond what the Capitals were willing to offer. During an interview with TSN, Ribeiro said Washington “didn’t come close” to the Coyotes’ offer.
Ultimately, Ribeiro’s departure isn’t all that surprising. Washington didn’t want to commit to more than a three-year deal and the $5.5 million annual value Ribeiro received would have made it difficult to accomplish other offseason goals like re-signing RFAs Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson.
While the possibility of a free agent signing to bolster center depth remains, the Capitals may likely head into next season with Brooks Laich slotted as their second-line center. He won’t have the same impact on the power play that Ribeiro did, but Laich should help make that line more of a two-way presence at even strength.
Evgeny Kuznetsov is a possibility at center down the road — General Manager George McPhee has said the Capitals want to try him there even though he plays wing in the KHL — but he will not don a Washington sweater until late next season after the conclusion of his KHL commitments at the absolute earliest. So, barring an addition, the Capitals would enter next season with Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle as their depth chart at center.
Hendricks, 32, inked a four-year deal worth $7.4 million ($1.85 million AAV) with the Nashville Predators. This was another case where the term and salary cap hit simply weren’t going to happen in Washington.
The Capitals made their plans rather clear when they re-signed Aaron Volpatti (two-years, $1.15 million with a $575,000 annual cap hit) as an inexpensive option for the fourth line during the regular season. Volpatti, 28, is expected to take on more of a regular role and may absorb the penalty kill responsibilities Hendricks had as well.
Where it’s impossible to measure the impact of Hendricks’s departure is in the dressing room. Bottom-six forwards are often viewed as easily replaceable and in a sense, they should be seeing as there are more of those types of players in the league than truly elite talents. But how will the mood and atmosphere of the Capitals’ dressing room and bench change without the always hardworking and upbeat Hendricks in the mix? Time will tell.