Hershey first plays at the Giant Center October 24
The Summer Upon Them
Who will replace Ribeiro next season? (Photo by Alena Schwarz)
After the final whistle for the Washington Capitals during this past season, questions for the offseason came up immediately. With numerous key players’ contracts running out on July 1st and the salary cap ceiling dropping by 6 million, General Manager George McPhee has a lot of decisions to make. The team goes into the summer with a little under 8.5 million in cap space after the team placed defenseman Jeff Schultz on waivers with the intent of using one of their compliance buy outs.
No decision could be bigger then what to do about second line center Mike Ribeiro. While the Caps attempted to sign him to a new three year deal during the season worth a reported total of 14 million, the energetic, and sometimes verbally aggressive center turned it down in favor of a deal closer to 5 years with a total around 25 to 30 million. Much to the chagrin of Riberio’s wife, it would appear the Caps have decided to go in another direction, leaving a large hole on their second line.
Similar to Ribeiro, fan favorite Matt Hendricks appears to be on his way out of town. While he is not normally on the score sheet, Hendricks quickly became a fan favorite with his willingness to stick up for teammates by dropping the gloves at any moment. However, in the world of a salary cap, fourth line players eventually have to be replaced, it and would appear as though Hendricks is going to be a casualty of this, just like Matt Bradley several years ago.
Two players on the Caps roster could hypothetically replace Ribeiro, although neither has the offensive talent. The first choice would likely be Brooks Laich, who until this past season was the teams iron man. While Laich has shown the ability to put up large point totals, scoring 59 points in the 2009-10 season, his offensive production has dropped off in each season since. Laich’s skill set is also arguably better suited for a third line checking role.
The second choice would be Mathieu Perreault, the undersized but offensively talented center. The question about Perreault has always been his ability to be consistent. During most of his many call ups, Perreault would usually start off scoring goals or putting up assists in bunches, before dropping off after a few games. However, when placed on the third line this past season with Jason Chimera and either Joel Ward or Eric Fehr, Perreault appeared to finally settle into a grove. While he has admitted to being more comfortable as a third line center, he could get a look at the second line if the team does not feel as though Laich can handle it.
With talented prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov still a year away, the only other likely option would be to go outside the organization. While many expected McPhee to address this at the draft, as he did last year in sending Cody Eakin and a second round pick to Dallas for Ribeiro, the team instead held onto most of their picks and looked towards the future. The team looked at former Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier, but he preferred to sign a five year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. After Ribeiro, who could still return to DC, the free agent market for centers drops off significantly. Former Philadelphia center Danny Briere is not the same player he used to be, and New Jersey’s Patrik Elias is likely to stay in the Garden State. If McPhee wants to replace Ribeiro from the outside, he is going to likely have to make a trade. However, more players are expected to be placed on waivers with the intention of being bought out before that window closes on Friday, July 5th.
Replacing Hendricks on the other hand may be significantly easier, and could be the biggest reason that the Caps are not interested in bringing him back. Tom Wilson showed he can play at the NHL level during his short run in the playoffs, and recently acquired gritty winger Michael Latta could also get a long look at training camp in September. The team could also look at bringing in a cheap free agent to fill the fourth line gritty role.
McPhee also has to deal with the teams restricted free agents, most notably defenseman Karl Alzner and first line left winger Marcus Johansson, as well as defenseman Tomas Kundratek, wingers Nicolas Deschamps, Peter LeBlanc, Danick Paquette, Mattias Sjogren, who left Hershey once before to return to Sweden, and defenseman Dustin Stevenson. While Alzner, Johansson, Kundratek, Deschamps, LeBlanc were offered qualifying offers, Sjogren, Paquette and Stevenson were not and will become unrestricted free agents. By extending offers to those players, the Caps hold onto their rights but other teams are able to sign them to offer sheets. Kundratek, however, signed a two year deal with a cap hit of 550,000.
While NHL teams do not normally go after other teams restricted free agents, it has happened. Last offseason, the Flyers attempted to pry defenseman Shea Weber away from the Nashville Predators with a 14 year, 110 million offer sheet. The Predators decided to match the offer, locking them into a long term deal with the franchise player. While no team is likely to offer a similar deal to Alzner, there may be a team out there that would be tempted to make a move for the Caps top pairing defenseman.
Johansson is another problem for the Caps. While he struggled at the beginning of last season, he played significantly better after returning from a concussion, scoring at a point-per-game pace. He is looking for a pretty good boost from his 900,000 dollar per year rookie contract. With limited cap space and numerous holes to fill, McPhee may have to get pretty creative to fit the Swedish winger onto the team.
With free agency opening in a few days, McPhee will have a significant amount of work to do. He has holes currently in the roster on the first, second, and fourth lines, as well as the first defensive pairing. Some of these will be filled by their restricted free agents, but others will likely have to be filled from the outside. The fun begins on Friday.