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Expect Washington Capitals to show restraint during NHL free agency

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Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis went on his blog this week to talk about the team’s efforts to retool its lineup this offseason.

“We want to keep some players. We want to sign some players,” Leonsis wrote, then added that fans should “not be surprised if you see some trades.”

“We want to change and improve,” he said.

With free agency opening at noon Friday, General Manager George McPhee said he doesn’t expect Washington to act rashly — and team officials have given no sign one way or the other about their plans.

But since the Capitals were ousted from the Stanley Cup playoffs in an unceremonious second-round sweep by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the spring, there has been plenty of talk about a potential shake-up that could include some of the “young guns” who have been mainstays in the Capitals’ lineup in recent seasons.

Forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are in place as franchise cornerstones, so that would make forward Alexander Semin or defenseman Mike Green the most likely trade candidates from that group if the Capitals were to make such a move.

Before Brooks Laich signed a six-year contract extension worth $27 million Tuesday, the veteran and dressing room leader said he sat down with management to discuss concerns he had about the team’s future and chemistry.

“I think, this year, there’s got to be a lot more accountability among our players to each other, to the coaches,” Laich said. “It’s up to every single player — doesn’t matter how much you make, how long you’ve been here or what your name is — to practice as hard as they can, to practice as a team, to work as a team.”

In an offseason already punctuated by blockbuster trades, the NHL is beginning to see the impact of an elevated salary cap maximum and minimum. It has given nearly every team more room to spend, including Washington. But the scarcity of high-impact players is driving up salaries, and McPhee insists the Capitals won’t experience buyer’s remorse.

“I think it’s a pretty thin group,” McPhee said of this year’s free agents. “Somebody’s going to spend too much money on free agents, and I’m glad it’s not going to be us. We’re in pretty good shape at this point.”

The Capitals have roughly $6.5 million under the $64.3 million salary cap after calculations of their 18 current players’ salaries and qualifying offers for restricted free agents Karl Alzner, Troy Brouwer and Semyon Varlamov. There is little indication Washington won’t reach agreements with Alzner and Brouwer, but Varlamov’s future in the NHL appears less certain amid reports he has opted to play in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League next season.

Of the five players set to become unrestricted free agents, Jason Arnott, Matt Bradley and Scott Hannan will enter the open market, according to their representatives.

Washington may not bring back many, if any, of the players set to become unrestricted free agents as Arnott, Bradley, Marco Sturm and Hannan haven’t received offers to re-sign. Boyd Gordon’s agent has declined to comment on any negotiations.

With a large number of players already under contract, though, the Capitals may have the luxury to take advantage of increased trade activity following the opening days of free agency, according to some analysts.

“They’re operating, in my view, from a position of strength,” said Craig Button, an analyst for the NHL Network and a former general manager. “They can pursue somebody out on the free agent market, but come next week there are going to be teams that have struck out in terms of pursuing free agents that have a willingness to trade and more will be available.”

One of Washington’s consistent needs in recent seasons has been the presence of an established center to take pressure off Backstrom. The biggest name on the market, Brad Richards, fits that role precisely, but he will be seeking a lengthy contract and possibly more than $7 million per season, according to various reports. While the Capitals could have interest in Richards, 31, the type of contract he’s seeking may be more than they’re willing to work with.

If the Capitals plan to shift Laich into more of a true center’s role as McPhee suggested earlier this week, that may open the door for bringing more depth and options on the wing. One such player could be Sean Bergenheim, 27, whom the Capitals know well from his success against them with the Lightning.

Washington has six defensemen under contract, but one is Tom Poti, who was limited to 21 games last season with a nagging groin injury and whom McPhee has said is fighting for his career. The Capitals could choose to add a veteran presence on the blue line, particularly if Poti’s health and availability for 2011-12 is still in question.

The biggest name among defensemen who were going to be available was Christian Ehrhoff until he signed with the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday evening. Veterans Roman Hamrlik, 37, Ed Jovanovski, 35, and Jan Hejda, 33, offer stability while younger options exist in the likes of puck mover Andy Greene, 28.

Then there’s the option in net. Should Varlamov elect to play in Russia — he cannot sign a contract with a KHL club until Friday at the earliest — the Capitals could choose to stay the course with Michal Neuvirth, 23, and Braden Holtby, 21. Washington could also decide to give Holtby more starts and seasoning with its American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, and bring in a veteran backup for Neuvirth, someone such as Brian Boucher, Johan Hedberg or Mathieu Garon.

When asked about the possibility of Varlamov leaving, though, McPhee said Washington was committed to its young netminders. “It’s either the three we have, or the two we have.”

“There isn’t a right or wrong answer to how to develop and support young goaltenders,” NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes said. “The Capitals have seemed to face the question of will they bring in a veteran for a few years now — but they haven’t yet and are in a position most teams in the league envy.”

Capitals note: Washington bought out defenseman Tyler Sloan on Thursday, a move that will result in a salary cap hit of $233,333 each of the next two seasons.

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