The Washington Capitals were one of the busiest teams Friday when the 2011 NHL free agent market opened, as General Manager George McPhee sent goalie Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a pair of draft picks and added three veterans to the lineup.
In signing role player and former Capitals captain Jeff Halpern, two-way defenseman Roman Hamrlik and a big-bodied, hardworking winger in Joel Ward, Washington elevated the leadership in a still-young dressing room and filled holes in the roster that will be left by the departure of up to five unrestricted free agents.
McPhee also brought clarity to the Capitals’ goaltending situation by dealing Varlamov to the Avalanche for the two draft picks. Whether the flurry of moves is the end of the Capitals’ changes this offseason, though, remains uncertain, and McPhee didn’t rule out the possibility of more alterations to the lineup.
“I feel like our team is complete,” McPhee said Friday. “We can fiddle around see what develops the rest of the summer, but if we do nothing going into September we’re in really good shape.”
After Friday’s signings, the Capitals have a little more than $2 million remaining under the salary cap of $64.3 million with restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Troy Brouwer, who likely will receive raises from their previous contracts, still to sign. Teams are allowed to be over the salary cap by 10 percent during the summer, though, and only need to be in compliance by Oct. 1.
Comments from owner Ted Leonsis, who indicated earlier in the week that the Capitals would be an active participant in free agency, also left room for more tweaks to the roster.
“We have plenty of time left to continue to re-craft the team,” Leonsis wrote on his blog, Ted’s Take. “As promised.”
Arguably the most dramatic move Friday was McPhee’s trade of Varlamov to the Avalanche for a first-round draft pick in 2012 and a second-round selection in 2012 or 2013, whichever the Capitals choose.
Varlamov, 23, appeared in 27 games during the 2010-11 regular season and had a .924 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average, but his availability was severely limited by groin and knee injuries. That missed time resulted in Michal Neuvirth asserting himself to become the Capitals’ postseason starter. Varlamov, a restricted free agent, was no longer assured of being the team’s go-to netminder and said he would rather play in Eastern Europe’s Kontinental Hockey League.
But on Friday, Varlamov agreed to a new contract with the Avalanche reportedly worth $5.5 million over two years.
“The issue really was that he wanted to be, I think in his mind, guaranteed that he’s the number one guy and to be paid like that,” said McPhee, who added that he was surprised the Capitals were able to get the return for Varlamov that they did from the Avalanche considering his injury history. “We couldn’t guarantee that, not with the competition that we had at that position. You really can’t guarantee any player anything.”
In its first move of the day, Washington brought back fan favorite and Potomac, Md., native Jeff Halpern on a one-year contract worth $825,000. The veteran center will enter his 12th NHL season in the fall and McPhee said Halpern, 35, is already penciled in to the fourth-line center spot.
Halpern is “really good at faceoffs, really good penalty-kill guy,” said McPhee. “He got 26 points last year, which is more than we got out of that position last year. We want players to be able to fulfill certain roles but also generate offense.”
Hamrlik, 37, signed a two-year deal worth $7 million. He will bring stability and plenty of experience — the left-handed Czech has played the second-most games (1,311) among active NHL defensemen — to Washington’s blue line.
Hamrlik, who averaged more than 22 minutes per game for the Montreal Canadiens last season, also gives Washington added insurance should Tom Poti, who missed most of the 2010-11 campaign with a groin injury and is fighting for his career, be unable to play.
“He might be a very good fit with Mike Green right now,” McPhee said of Hamrlik. “Mike brings some real good sense, and puck movement and good defensive play.”
The Capitals also signed Ward, a 6-foot-1, 218-pound winger, to a four-year deal worth $12 million. McPhee acknowledged that the price was about 15 percent more than Washington had anticipated spending on the former Nashville Predator, but that 16 teams were involved in the bidding.
Ward, 30, recorded 10 goals and 29 points in 80 regular season games for the Predators but kicked things up a notch in the playoffs, when in 13 games he led the team in goals (seven), assists (six) and points (13).
“I’d rather have someone that gets 10-15 [goals] in the regular season but delivers in the playoffs than someone who gets 25 and doesn’t,” McPhee said.
Capitals notes: Washington re-signed depth forward Sean Collins to a one-year deal.