As NHL free agency begins, Washington Capitals GM George McPhee says he'll be cautious

Phoenix's Matthew Lombardi (career-high 19 goals) might be the most intriguing center on the market.
Phoenix's Matthew Lombardi (career-high 19 goals) might be the most intriguing center on the market. (Ross Franklin/associated Press)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010

When the doors to NHL free agency are flung wide open Thursday at noon, the Washington Capitals plan to enter cautiously, General Manager George McPhee said.

"We'll be involved but I don't expect to do a whole lot," McPhee said, tamping down fans' expectations as he often does ahead of the annual frenzy. He was also rather candid when assessing this year's class, which is widely considered the weakest since the lockout, saying, "There's not much out there."

The Capitals' most pressing need is a second-line center to replace Brendan Morrison and complement star winger Alexander Semin. McPhee said that role potentially could be filled by a prospect, such as Mathieu Perreault, but he also conceded that he's contemplating adding a free agent, so long as the player is an upgrade and is willing to accept a short-term deal.

"We think we have centers that are ready to go," McPhee said. "So we want to be really careful not get drawn into any long-term deals at that position. The issue is: Are they ready this year or next?"

The Capitals are about $4.5 million below the $59.4 million limit after computing the team's 16 current players' salaries and projected earnings for their four restricted free agents.

That might allow for the addition of a center such as Saku Koivu, Matt Cullen or another playoff-tested veteran. Koivu, 35, had 19 goals and 33 assists in 71 games with Anaheim last season and earned $3.25 million. Cullen, 33, had 16 goals and 32 assists in 81 games for Carolina and Ottawa and made $2.875 million.

Matthew Lombardi, meantime, might be the most intriguing center on the market. The 28-year-old notched a career-high 19 goals and 34 assists for Phoenix, but figures to command a significant raise over his $1.8 million salary and perhaps more of a long-term commitment than the Capitals would be willing to make.

McPhee also said he doesn't feel pressure to spend up to the ceiling. In fact, he would rather hold back some of the $4.5 million just in case the team suffers injuries or needs to stock up at the trade deadline.

"We don't have to spend it," McPhee said. "You don't ever want to go into the season right up against the cap. Ideally, you put a good team on the ice and you have room."

McPhee said he "probably won't make any changes" to the defense, despite the fact that it ranked 16th and 18th in goals against and shots allowed, respectively, last season. "We've got seven guys ready to go," he said.

Even if McPhee does stand pat, Washington's blue line figures to be improved next season with the addition of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, touted prospects the general manager said are ready to take on full-time roles. It's also possible the Capitals will cut loose Shaone Morrisonn, who is set to become unrestricted after five seasons in Washington.

In net, McPhee said 22-year-olds Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth will be the tandem next season.

"We're going with our young goaltenders," he said. "We actually think this is going to be good for both of them because there isn't going to be the pressure on either one of them to play 65 games. It's an opportunity for both of them to play more games at the NHL level without the pressure of trying to carry the team.

"We've done a good job of drafting and developing," McPhee added, seemingly summing up his approach, "and it's time to give these players their opportunity."

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