Capitals Plan to Be Cautious As Free Agency Opens

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

General managers will be busy making phone calls. Player agents will be busy answering them. Hockey fans across North America, meantime, will be busy hitting refresh on their Web browsers.

And it all begins at noon today when the NHL's annual free agent signing frenzy opens for business. This year's class is not considered a strong one, but a handful of the game's biggest names are expected to be available -- for the right price.

Forwards Marian Hossa, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Mike Cammalleri and Marian Gaborik, among others, could change teams. Defensemen Mike Komisarek, Mattias Ohlund and François Beauchemin, to name a few, could change tax brackets. And goaltenders Nikolai Khabibulin and Manny Fernandez could change another franchise's fortunes.

But unless the two-time Southeast Division champion Washington Capitals clear some space under the salary cap, don't expect them to be in the hunt for any big-name players.

General Manager George McPhee has money to spend. But not that much.

After totaling the salaries of Washington's 16 players currently under contract and factoring in contracts for the team's five restricted free agents, the Capitals are believed to be roughly $3 million under next year's salary cap ceiling of $56.8 million. The $3 million figure, however, is fluid because the restricted free agents are not signed and because of other variables.

"Don't expect us to do big-money deals or long-term deals," McPhee said. "Those just haven't worked around the league. For the last several years, there have been lots of players that have signed big-money deals and you would be hard-pressed to find a handful that were any good. It seems that six months after those deals are signed, [general managers] are trying to move that same guy."

"So we're going to be prudent [today] and see if there's anything that makes sense for our club," he added. "If there is, we'll be involved and try to sign somebody. [But] don't be surprised if we sit this one out."

With the departures of Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, both of whom signed contracts in Russia last month, the Capitals need a second-line center and a top-six wing. But if McPhee doesn't sign anyone, he reiterated that those needs can be filled via a trade or from within the organization.

"The forward position, if we could add some more talent or depth we would," McPhee said. "On defense we're fine. Goaltending we're fine. We have enough [forwards] internally, we believe, to be a good team, a playoff team. But if there's something that makes us really good, we'll be involved. If not, we'll just go with what we have."

McPhee also said that if the right deal came along, he would consider spending 10 percent over the ceiling, which is permitted during the offseason to allow teams time to figure out how to squeeze salaries under the cap.

"We'll have to see what develops tomorrow," he said.

Something else McPhee must consider when weighing offers to free agents is what effect a deal might have on the Capitals' ability to re-sign core youngsters Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, both of whom will need new contracts after next season and could be due hefty raises.

There is also the possibility that the salary cap will go down prior to the 2010-11 season.

"You're always looking at your club short-term and long-term," McPhee said. "You have to certainly be mindful of all of the ramifications of what you do."

Capitals Notes: Asked whether Michael Nylander still was pursuing a deal in Russia, McPhee said: "There were some [Kontinental Hockey League] teams that were interested in him. But his position is that he wants to play in the NHL." Nylander, who has fallen out of favor with Coach Bruce Boudreau and hardly played in the playoffs, is set to earn $8.5 million over the next two seasons in Washington. The 36-year-old center has a no-movement clause in his contract. McPhee also said he has continued to negotiate an extension with backup goaltender Brent Johnson, which could mean the team remains open to trading José Theodore.

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