George McPhee, above, on the draft, which starts Friday night: “I don’t know what to expect this year, and we’ll go there prepared to draft a player in the first round and then see what else develops throughout the rest of the draft.” (Luis Alvarez/AP)

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee will have five selections, tied for the lowest number in franchise history, when the NHL Entry Draft begins Friday at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minn.

The small number of draft picks doesn’t bother McPhee, though, who has publicly questioned the overall depth of this year’s class. Adding valuable prospects through the draft has been a strength of the Capitals in recent years, but with only one choice in the first three rounds — the 26th overall — finding an impact player may be more of a challenge.

McPhee could make a different type of splash during draft weekend, with the hockey world already abuzz with trades, trade rumors and news of new signings.

On Thursday, the Philadelphia Flyers ignited what could be a hectic few days of player movement by sending two of their biggest stars, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to Los Angeles and Columbus, respectively. On the heels of those deals, Philadelphia signed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year deal worth $51 million.

As for whether he expected to be actively seeking a trade during the draft, McPhee remained typically non-committal.

“I don’t know what to expect this year, and we’ll go there prepared to draft a player in the first round and then see what else develops throughout the rest of the draft,” McPhee told reporters during a conference call. “If there are trades being discussed, we’re certainly going to be involved.”

Any action taken by Washington this weekend may also be a preview of what alterations are to come this offseason, after the team was swept out of the second round of the playoffs by Tampa Bay, the team’s second consecutive playoff disappointment as the East’s top seed.

McPhee has declined to comment on the discussions with the team’s pending unrestricted free agents, a group that includes six NHL regulars — Brooks Laich, Jason Arnott, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Scott Hannan and Marco Sturm — who will be able to test the open market July 1. Representatives for Arnott and Bradley have said there is nothing in the works with Washington entering draft weekend.

The Capitals have submitted a qualifying offer to restricted free agent Karl Alzner, according to the defenseman’s agent, and the two sides are expected to discuss a future contract more this week. Meantime, negotiations are still underway with the team’s other high-profile restricted free agent, goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who is also considering offers to return to Russia and play in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Washington has more than $50.8 million committed to the 2011-12 roster, but it has more than $13.4 million in space under the new upper limit of the salary cap. The NHL and players’ association announced Thursday that the salary cap maximum will be $64.3 million for next season, up from $59.4 million. The Capitals spent to the salary cap in 2010-11.

Part of the Capitals’ flexibility in spending, and making moves at the trade deadline in recent years though, has been the development of young talent such as John Carlson, Marcus Johansson and Michal Neuvirth along with Varlamov and Alzner, who all have played significant roles while on cap-friendly, entry-level contracts.

Washington’s next opportunity to add a player who could do the same in the future will come Friday night with the 26th overall pick. After that choice, Washington holds selections in the fourth (117th), fifth (147th), sixth (177th) and seventh (207th) rounds after trading away picks in the second and third the past two years in trades for Joe Corvo and Dennis Wideman, respectively.

“I don’t think it’s the greatest of drafts. If you were ever going to move picks to acquire players to help your team . . .” McPhee said. “I think it lacks the real difference-makers. I think we were able to look at the last few drafts and say we’re picking at 25 or 26. Is there a difference maker? Is he gonna be there? Can we find one? And I think in those drafts they were going to be more available. I still think there are going to be a few in this draft, we’re hoping that there will be one sitting there when we pick.”