Nearly two months have passed since the Washington Capitals were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, and planning for next season is already in full swing across the league. But when NHL free agency — with its bidding wars and inflated contracts — opens at noon Friday, the Capitals likely won’t make a significant addition to their roster.
General Manager George McPhee, who rarely shows his hand when it comes to roster decisions or offseason targets, isn’t particularly enamored with this year’s shallow free agent pool. He believes the moves made last spring will allow Washington to avoid any hasty decisions or regrettable contracts in the free agent fray.
“We made a lot of our moves in the season,” McPhee said recently, citing the trade that brought winger Martin Erat from Nashville at the deadline and contract extensions for goaltender Braden Holtby and defenseman Jack Hillen. “So we wouldn’t be in a position where we would have to go out and sign free agents. It just gets too expensive, too long [contract terms], and you don’t know those players as well as you know your own players.”
This particular free agent crop doesn’t boast much depth or top-end talent, even with the unexpected additions provided by compliance buyouts. It’s why Vincent Lecavalier became the most hotly pursued target once he was bought out by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Once he agreed to a five-year, $22.5 million deal with Philadelphia earlier this week, reality that this group offers few true difference-makers grew even more apparent.
Washington has a little more than $8.4 million in room under the $64.3 million salary cap to spend, but restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson still need to be re-signed. Their deals are expected to absorb much of that space considering Alzner could receive in the neighborhood of $3 million annually, while Johansson will earn at least double his previous $900,000 salary.
It doesn’t make an addition impossible through free agency, but it certainly would be more challenging, especially in the Capitals’ two biggest areas of need: a top-four defenseman and center depth.
John Erskine, 33, had a rebirth under Coach Adam Oates last season, but his game clearly declined in the playoffs. The Capitals could use a sound left-handed defenseman to partner with John Carlson and better balance the back end, but the options available on the free agent market are sparse.
Former Bruins alternate captain Andrew Ference, 34, or Rob Scuderi, 34, who won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, respectively, are available but are among the most sought after blueliners this summer, and their new contracts likely will reflect that.
Up front, Washington is expected to lose two key parts of last year’s lineup. Center Mike Ribeiro, who helped fuel the best power play in the league, and gritty winger Matt Hendrickswill explore the free agent market. Hendricks is believed to be seeking a three- or four-year deal worth at least $2 million annually and won’t return.
Ribeiro, 33, wants a four- or five-year deal, and given the demand for centers, particularly top-six playmakers, he likely will get it. Should he be unable to land that lengthy term, though, the Capitals are open to bringing him back — but only for three years.
For the teams that lost out on the Lecavalier sweepstakes, Ribeiro may be the next best thing along with younger alternatives such as Stephen Weiss, 30, and Tyler Bozak, 27. The contracts they will be able to command as free agents likely would price the Capitals out of contention for their services. Derek Roy, 30, is also about to jump into the market, but he has seen his game decline in recent years. Mikhail Grabovski, 29, bought out by Toronto, also could be an option at the right price.
Even with those apparent needs, McPhee’s preference appears to be bolstering the roster internally. That could include using Brooks Laich as second-line center, left-handed defensive prospect Dmitry Orlov as an NHL regular and perhaps even bringing 2012 first-round draft pick Tom Wilson into the fold.
“I think we’re in good shape. We’re going to use guys from our own system,” McPhee said. “I don’t think we have to go outside the system a whole lot. We have some young guys like Orlov we have to take a look at, decide on Wilson, that sort of thing. I think we’re a pretty solid team. We’ll see if anything else develops.”