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.