George McPhee, the Washington Capitals’ general manager, has a saying about summer hockey deals: “You can always make a summer splash,” he said on Wednesday. “But the splash doesn’t last. Reality does.”
There are two ways to look at McPhee’s Caps as they — and the rest of the National Hockey League — prepare for the start of free agency on Friday.
On the one hand, they are one of hockey’s most consistent teams. They have been to the playoffs for six straight seasons and play to sellout crowds on a nightly basis inside Verizon Center.
On the other hand, those six trips to the playoffs have produced three first-round series victories and nothing more. The end of last season was especially deflating, a 5-0 Game 7 loss at home in the opening round to a New York Rangers team that went on to manage one victory against the Boston Bruins in the conference semifinals.
This coming season will be the Caps’ 40th in the NHL. They have never won a Stanley Cup and have been to the finals once — in 1998, which was McPhee’s first season running the team. Undoubtedly, if you had told McPhee that he would head into the summer 15 years later with a three-time MVP on his team but not a single trip back to the finals, he would have laughed at you.
McPhee doesn’t laugh a lot when the subject is hockey. He knows full well— as does his increasingly impatient owner, Ted Leonsis — that the Caps who skated heads down off the ice on May 13, after that embarrassing Game 7 loss, are almost certainly not good enough to unseat the Chicago Blackhawks as Cup champions next June. The Caps are good — but not quite good enough.
So, what can McPhee do to change that?
In terms of the coming free agent market, probably not very much. Instead, he will be forced to rely on something few hockey fans in this town want to hear about at this moment: patience.
That’s reality right now in Caps-world: Two important players will almost certainly leave when the free agent market opens. One is Mike Ribeiro, the 33-year-old center who played very well last season with 49 points in 48 regular season games. The Caps would like to have Ribeiro back but not if it involves a five-year contract — which is what Ribeiro wants. McPhee has offered three years and gotten nowhere. If no one offers Ribeiro five years — or four — he might come back to McPhee’s offer. Chances are, someone will give him what he wants — trying to make a summer splash — and he will be gone.
The other key player who is certainly gone is forward Matt Hendricks, whose loss will be felt in ways that can’t be measured statistically. Hendricks was one of the team’s true leaders, a guy willing to start a fight to light a fire under his teammates and someone who the other players looked to for leadership in the locker room.
He made $800,000 this past season but will almost certainly command at least a three-year deal in the range of $2 million per season on the free agent market because of those intangibles he provides. The Caps decided long ago to plug in Aaron Volpatti, who will cost only $1.15 million the next two years, in place of Hendricks.
The man expected to replace Ribeiro won’t be here until March. That’s 22-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Caps’ first-round pick three years ago. The Caps would like to have him here for training camp but he has a $3 million buyout with the team he plays for in Russia and, by rule, the Caps can’t help him pay that off. He will be in Washington as soon as his season ends in March, and McPhee believes he will give them another quality player — with some speed — up front.
But that’s not enough, and McPhee and Coach Adam Oates both know it. Kuznetsov for Ribeiro is, at best, an even swap, as is Volpatti for Hendricks. The Caps need a healthy Brooks Laich this coming season, not only because of his on-ice skills but because he is, in many ways, a captain. That’s not a knock on Alex Ovechkin, who wears the ‘C,’ but Ovechkin is never going to be a vocal leader and — even after winning his third MVP last month — remains something of a question mark, at least in terms of being a truly great player in postseason — when it matters most.
There is no doubt that he responded well to Oates as a coach and made the adjustment to right wing very well as the season wore on. But he didn’t score a goal in the last six games of the Rangers series and, if the Caps are ever to play deep into the playoffs, that simply can’t happen.
Which is why the Caps have to add a big-time scorer up front. The question is how to do that. There is no one in the free agent market — or likely to come on the market by being an amnesty cut — who McPhee and Oates are dying to get. Vincent Lecavalier might have been a possibility if he had been willing to sign a three-year contract for as much as $4 million a year. The Philadelphia Flyers signed Lecavalier for far more than that — five years, $22.5 million on Tuesday. Former Flyer Danny Briere is also available but will probably be priced too high for someone about to turn 36.
That means a summer splash is unlikely. Which means the key to the Caps’ playoff chances next spring might be Michal Neuvirth.
Yes, the backup goalie. McPhee believes Neuvirth still has huge potential. He’s still only 25 but has never been able to stay healthy enough to either be a true No. 1 or a big-time trading chip. If Neuvirth can stay healthy and play well and if Braden Holtby, who won’t be 24 until September, continues to improve, McPhee might be able to put together a pre-trade deadline package that includes one of the goalies who will bring him the big-time scorer the Caps need.
McPhee has always believed that trade deadline moves are often the best ones because sometimes a desperate team will give up too much. “Of course you have to be careful,” he said. “You don’t want to be the one who makes a move out of desperation because then you can mess things up for the short term and the long term.”
The Caps have enough good young players in their system that they could afford to give up some draft picks, a goalie and perhaps one of their young defensemen to get a true scorer. If it is the right player, that wouldn’t be a desperate move, it would be a smart one.
As McPhee says, the summer splash isn’t what matters — the length of the spring fling does.
That is reality.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.