The Washington Capitals enter the free agency period on July 1 with several question marks and holes to fill. General Manager George McPhee has already named a head coach and acquired the much-needed #2 center in Mike Ribeiro. The team’s next steps are filling out the rest of the roster and coaching staff, all while assuming business as usual which might not be the case come September. The good news for the Washington Capitals is the salary cap is set at $70.2 million for next season. That’s assuming of course there is a next season or that the Collective Bargaining Agreement that is agreed upon for next season even includes a salary cap. Assuming no changes to the salary cap, the Capitals currently have $49.4 million tied up in two goalies, five defensemen, nine forwards, one injured player and one buyout. That means the Capitals have approximately $21 million left to sign their existing restricted free agents and targeted unrestricted free agents.
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Step 1: Re-sign Restricted Free Agent Defenseman Mike Green
This may sound obvious, but the Capitals will need to sign Green, and soon. Even before the trade of Dennis Wideman, Green was expected to be a key contributor to the team. Mike Green has been tendered a qualifying offer of $5 million for next season, and he has until July 15 to sign it. If he accepts the one-year deal, he can become an unrestricted free agent next July 1. Considering Green has played just 81 games over the past two season and has been limited to 11 goals and 31 points over that span, his negotiating power is limited. George McPhee would likely want to sign Green to a longer-term contract for less money, and Green certainly thinks he is worth every penny of that $5 million, if not more. Green would do well to negotiate until July 15, but ultimately he should take the qualifying offer, punting contract negotiations for 6-12 months to see how he plays next season and if he can stay healthy, as McPhee is not likely to take a chance on a long-term, big-money deal for the oft-injured blueliner.
Step 2: Re-sign Restricted Free Agent Defenseman John Carlson
This is definitely step two and not step one. John Carlson has also been tendered a qualifying offer for next season, but for just $826,875. The Capitals retain his rights, but he is not likely to accept this deal because his market value is much higher. The only leverage Carlson has, in the absence of an offer sheet, is his value to the team. With Mike Green signed and ready to play, Carlson’s apparent value is lower, as Green has proven himself to be the Capitals’ top right-handed, offensive defenseman when healthy. Carlson’s market value is at least $3 million, but without leverage he will likely sign a deal somewhat lower, a la Karl Alzner last off-season. With Green and Carlson in the fold, the Capitals will be set at defense next season.
Step 3: Sign a Scoring Winger in Unrestricted Free Agency
With the specter of high-scoring winger Alexander Semin heading toward unrestricted free agency hanging over their heads, the Washington Capitals are left with a gaping hole on their second line wing. There are a few scoring wingers on the market who could make an impact on the team and could play well with apparent #2 center Mike Ribeiro. Knowing George McPhee, he’ll head straight for the second tier of the market, meaning his likely target is the Swedish Mike Knuble: 35-year old RW Mikael Samuelsson. He’s a crafty, veteran scorer when healthy and a big body (6’2, 218) who can play well in all three zones and on both special teams. He’s capable of producing 20 goals and 45 points next season, he is a former Team Sweden teammate of Nicklas Backstrom, he can provide veteran leadership, and we all know he will speak his mind. He has 342 points in 669 NHL games, but more importantly, 58 points in 99 playoff games and the 2008 Stanley Cup. He’ll fit right in to the team and the salary structure at Mike Knuble money. It is also possible the Capitals acquire forward Dainius Zubrus in a trade from New Jersey if Lou Lamoriello can’t come up with the money to sign Zach Parise.
Step 4: Re-Sign Restricted Free Agent Center Jay Beagle
Center Jay Beagle was tendered a qualifying offer of $577,500, meaning the Capitals retain his rights, but he has earned more than that with his play in the playoffs. He does not bring a lot of offense, but he brings energy, toughness, excellent defense and faceoffs. He’ll likely get a contract closer to $700,000, and he may get that for two years. Beagle will anchor the penalty kill and the fourth line next season, and he can step up to the third line if necessary. He seems expendable on paper, but heart never translated well into words.
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Step 5: Hire Assistant Coaches
George McPhee got his man with head coach Adam Oates, now Oates needs to find his men. Former Caps assistant Dean Evason has already moved on, but Jim Johnson is still available. Considering Johnson and Oates have worked together before, and considering Johnson’s somewhat thin professional coaching resume, it is likely Johnson doesn’t get selected elsewhere and he comes back to Washington. Johnson had a major impact with the team’s defensemen and penalty kill, and nowhere was it more apparent than in the first round of the playoffs against Boston. Oates will also need to find a more offensively-minded assistant to handle the other duties and who can communicate well with the players. No word yet on candidates, but some logical candidates include recently retired former teammate Paul Kariya, former teammate and current Michigan State Assistant coach Kelly Miller, former teammate and current Team Slovakia General Manager Peter Bondra, former teammate and current WHL head coach Steve Konowalchuk, current QMJHL Saint John head coach and former teammate Gerard Gallant, former teammate and current Tampa Bay player development coach Steve Thomas, and former Tampa Bay colleague Wes Walz. If Johnson does not return, former teammate and NHL assistant Rob Zettler is a possibility.
Step 6: Fill Out the Bottom Two Lines
George McPhee has never lacked an ability to find bottom-six forwards. Right now, even with Mattias Sjogren, the Capitals need one more checking forward to fill out their roster. They don’t have an abundance of players in Hershey who can fill the role right now, though some young players may bubble up to the big club from time to time this season. Garrett Mitchell, for instance, will be better off playing all the time in the AHL rather than 6 minutes a night for 40 games in the NHL. This is where a player like Matt Bradley might return to the Capitals. When Bradley signed in Florida last summer, it wasn’t as though the Capitals wouldn’t have taken him back, but he just got more money there and more opportunity. After an injury-plagued season, though, the Panthers are looking to buy him out of the last year of his deal, leaving him available to be signed for a lower salary and reduced role. Bradley won’t contribute much offense, but he is irreplaceable in the locker room, he brings heart every night, and he is a veteran leader with a lot of experience in DC. He had resumed skating with the Panthers at the end of the season after suffering a concussion, so that injury should not be a major concern.