NHL free agency opens in less than 24 hours and, as usual, the Capitals and General Manager George McPhee like to keep plans close to the vest. There are plenty of questions that Washington will answer as free agency begins and stretches into the offseason, though.
First, a look at where things stand. If you follow along on Capgeek, the Capitals have 18 roster players from last year under contract and about $9.369 million under the salary cap now that they have bought out the contract of Tyler Sloan.
Missing from that number, though, are restricted free agents Troy Brouwer, Karl Alzner and Semyon Varlamov. There is little reason to believe the Capitals won’t reach an agreement with Brouwer and Alzner, so their next deals must be considered when looking at the overall picture — as would Varlamov’s, even though his future in Washington appears less certain. Offseason signee Mattias Sjogren and his NHL salary of $900,000 isn’t included in that number either, although he could be wearing a Capitals sweater this season, too.
With that, and the 23-player limit for the active NHL roster and 50-contract maximum in mind, here are some things to keep an eye on as the Capitals move forward this summer:
--Owner Ted Leonsis’ comments on his blog this week, telling fans, ”don’t be surprised if you see some trades,” indicated that the Capitals would be active in free agency.
Since Washington’s season ended in an unceremonious sweep by Tampa Bay, there has been plenty of talk about a potential shakeup of the “Young Guns.” Whether or not significant alterations are made to the roster remains the largest question this summer. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are in place as franchise cornerstones, so that would make Alexander Semin or Mike Green the most likely trade candidates from that group.
--A second-line center has been one of Washington’s top needs in recent years. While it’s possible the Capitals could look to fill that void from the outside via free agency or trade, McPhee said this week he would like to see Brooks Laich play at center more. If that’s the way Washington’s brass has penciled in the 2011-12 lineup, it may signal the pursuit of say a third-line winger – maybe someone like Sean Bergenheim -- to bolster depth.
While Brad Richards is the most high-profile player of this year’s crop of free agents and a center that could be a perfect in that role on the Capitals’ depth chart, he’s likely looking at a lofty contract that reports have pegged at around at least $7 million (and possibly a bidding war). So while he would be an interesting thought, it would be something of an uncharacteristic move for McPhee and the Capitals to sacrifice some of the flexibility they have to chase the biggest fish on the market.
--What will Tom Poti be able to bring next year and how does it impact the rest of the defense? Poti, who is one of six defensemen currently under contract with the Capitals, missed all but 21 games last year with a nagging groin injury. At the end of the year McPhee said the veteran is fighting for his career at this point. If Alzner is signed, he will bring the group to an even six without Poti, but Washington could look to bring another veteran back into the fold. Unrestricted free agent to-be Scott Hannan , 32, made $4.5 million last season and could be brought back for the right price and term, while other options could include Ed Jovanovski or Roman Hamrlik.
-- Semyon Varlamov ’s future with Washington is still in flux, with reports that he’s chosen the KHL. Nothing is official yet, though, because he cannot sign with a KHL club until Friday at the earliest. If Varlamov does not re-sign in Washington, the next question in goal will be if the Capitals choose to stay the course with Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby .
There are two schools of thought; one, to let Neuvirth and Holtby continue to grow under the daily watch of Dave Prior and against NHL competition. The other would be to bring in a veteran backup — like unrestricted free agents Johan Hedberg or Brian Boucher — who can provide depth while allowing Holtby more starts down in Hershey. McPhee has been steadfast in his public commitment to the young goalies and said earlier this week that Washington would move forward with Neuvirth and Holtby if Varlamov did not return.