Friday is the first day NHL GMs can start signing free agents, and the Washington Capitals have already seen three of their prominent free agents take employment elsewhere.
Mike Ribeiro, the long-awaited No. 2 center, signed a four-year deal with the Arizona (nee Phoenix) Coyotes and fan favorite winger Matt Hendricks got his own four-year deal with the Nashville Predators. D Jeff Schultz, who was waived earlier in the week, signed a one-year deal for $700,000.
Good for all, bad for the Caps.
Hendricks’ deal with Nashville will pay him $7.4M over the length of the contract ($1.85M per annum), while Ribeiro will make $22M on his contract, a $5.5M cap hit each season.
The Caps simply could not afford either player for their market value.
It leaves George McPhee in an interesting place, especially with his team poised to join a more competitive division next season. The team is still negotiating with RFA Karl Alzner, but sources indicate that negotiation could end up in arbitration.
One the Caps spots that could use bolstering is another top defensive contributor on their blue line to push John Erskine into more of a third pairing/situational seventh defenseman spot. They do have several youngsters that will compete for playing time on the back end, but most are the puck-moving variety.
Up front, Ribeiro’s exit once again creates a gaping hole at 2C.
The Caps expect Brooks Laich to enter camp completely healthy, but he’s much more suited to wing on the second line or center on the third line. His versatility is one thing the Caps really like about Laich, but he’s just not offensively gifted enough to be counted on as a playmaker on a scoring line, such as Ribeiro was. The Caps once hoped Marcus Johansson would be that player, but his ineffectiveness in the face-off circle and lack of presence on the defensive end makes him more suited to play wing, which we saw him do primarily last season.
To make matters worse, unlike with the defenseman, there are no prospects waiting in the wings to push veterans for playing time at center within the organization.
Many expected (hoped) the Caps would re-sign Ribeiro, eliminating the need to look outside the organization for that 2C as they have so often in the past. Now that Ribeiro has moved on to greener pastures officially, the Caps hand is finally forced. But among the free agent candidates, there are no logical solutions. The only player on the market that really suited their needs at the position is the one that just left.
The Caps will probably have Martin Erat skate with Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top line next season. If the Caps don’t make a push and sign a free agent –or make a trade — to bolster that second line, it will be formed from a mish-mash of Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson and Mattieu Perreault, with the leftovers joining the third line with Joel Ward. Two-thirds of the the fourth line looks pretty set with Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti.
A third line of Brooks Laich centering Chimera and Ward is a line with a purpose — defensively responsible with speed on a wing, with two of the three also poised for lots of penalty kill time.
But unless the Caps are willing to get creative and make some deals, they won’t have that luxury. With the road to the playoffs that much more congested, it’s a bad time for the roster to be in such a state of flux.