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Free Agent Folly

Photo by the Washington Post

George McPhee cannot win.

Heading in to free agency on July 1st, many expected the Capitals’ General Manager to make a splash – like he has in almost every other free agency period during his tenure.

But as Sunday and Monday passed, only Joey Crabb, a bottom six forward, was added to the Washington player corps.  There was no winger to replace Alexander Semin.  There was no top-four defenseman.

And for some reason, the Capitals’ fan base is in an upoar.

July 1st is a funny day almost every summer, but this summer, it had the potential to be extra funny.  With a ridiculously thin market, players like Dennis Wideman and Paul Gaustad had already signed crazy deals as potential unrestricted free agents.  As noon passed on Sunday, the same thing began happening again.

Jiri Hudler got four years, $16 million from Calgary.  P.A. Parenteau, who has one 20-goal season at age 29, got the same.  Jason Garrison, who had 33 points last season, received a six-year. $27.6 million deal with his hometown Vancouver Canucks – and left money on the table.

“It’s a very inflated market this summer, and there aren’t very many players and a lot of teams pursuing those players.” McPhee said at a press conference Monday afternoon.  “At some point you start inventing players, making them out to be more than you should.  Sometimes it’s better to sit back and stay out of it.  It’s not a great crop of free agents this summer anyway.

“We added a skill guy in [center Mike] Ribeiro, and we expect that move is going to make us a whole lot better.  We got a pretty good hockey team here.  I don’t anticipate a lot happening.  You gotta do what you think is right in terms of dollar and term.  With respect to certain players, if it doesn’t make sense, you don’t do it.  It’s gotta be right for us.”

Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, McPhee is absolutely correct to employ this course of action.

That’s not to say that this team doesn’t need to be improved.  Of course it does.  Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault are not top-six wingers on a Stanley-Cup caliber team.  But spending big money over long term on players that are not worth said money and term is always a bad idea, especially with such a thin market.  There is little to be had, and the prices go up for mediocre players as a result.

“There’s not a lot of depth,” McPhee added.  “People talk about Parise and Suter, but then where does it go after that?  There’s not a lot to talk about.  Everybody wants to do something, but you’ve gotta be careful, because we all know what it’s like to feel like you’ve gotta do something, you do something, and the end of training camp or the end of October you look at the guy and say ‘why did we do that?’”

Read on by clicking here.

I understand that it’s frustrating to look at the $20 million the Capitals have in salary cap space and wonder why Washington didn’t go after some of the big guns, or at least spring for one of the lower free agents to fill that winger spot.  But you always have to look ahead to the future when making a deal.  Every year can’t be “Stanley Cup or bust” from a management perspective.

“Well, it’s $20 million of space this year, but what’s it look like in the future?” McPhee pondered.  “How long are you committing?  Do you want 15-year deals, 10-year deals on the books?

“That’s not a direction we want to go in right now.  We’re flexible, we can do things, we have all our picks.  We were not desperate to do anything in free agency and we didn’t do anything desperate.  We’re not going to commit to anyone that doesn’t fit to us.” 

That is precisely the point.  Parenteau would have been okay, Hudler would have been okay, Ray Whitney could have been a solution, but none of the free agents that have signed so far jump out and say to me, “Wow, that guy could really help the Capitals win the Stanley Cup next year.”

Obviously, Zach Parise would.  But when he signs for ten-plus years at an annual cap hit likely over $7.5 million, would you be comfortable with two wingers eating up $17 million-plus on the cap for the next eight years?  That type of contract eats at your team for many years and not only hurts your salary structure but also your ability to bring in other players because of front-loaded contracts.

Again, make no mistake: Semin is a loss, and the Capitals need to replace him, but giving tons of money to players in free agency is not the way to do it.  Big free agent signings almost always backfire, especially in this town – as recently as last season.  Remember Joel Ward?  Jaromir Jagr?  Michael Nylander? Jose Theodore?  Tom Poti?  Scott Gomez in New York and Montreal?  Jay Bouwmeester in Calgary?  The list goes on and on.

“There’s a time to get in, and a time to get away,” McPhee said.  “You can survive the loss of a good player, but it’s hard to survive bad contracts.  Sometimes you can do something at this time of year, and it handcuffs you for years.  This summer doesn’t seem to be the right time.”

In fact, I can’t think of a team that has won the Stanley Cup in recent memory by spending big in free agency on multiple players, save the 2010 Blackhawks.  And even that might be a stretch – because Brian Campbell was either under-performing or hurt for much of that Cup run.  Nothing is won in July.

The Capitals don’t need to act in the first 48, 72, 96, or 120 hours of free agency to address their needs.  There are three months (actually, probably more) until the season starts.  There is plenty of time to trade.  There is plenty of time to try and hunt for bargain guys to break out, like the Islanders have done with Parenteau and Matt Moulson and one team seems to do every year.

So patience, once again.  There is no sense doing something now that you will regret down the road.  The Capitals are not a Stanley Cup contender at this moment, and I’m not acting like they are.  But they are in better shape than most teams.  They have a new coach and a pipeline of prospects that has been replenished with a brilliant 2012 draft (that McPhee orchestrated, by the way).  If they haven’t made any improvements by opening night, maybe worry a bit.  But remember at the start of last season when everyone said how good the Capitals would be?

Help is on the way.  Not every team wins the Stanley Cup in their “window.”  Sometimes, you have to create another.

In their current state, the Capitals can.

With more big contracts, they could not.

Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.

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