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Free Agency is Far From Free

Last Friday, the NHL’s Free Agent Emporium opened for business with its shelves freshly stocked with hopeful players of varying skill levels, ages and salary requirements. The lockout that shortened and delayed the start of the 2012-13 season also carved a collective $180 million out of the NHL’s salary cap, marking the first time the cap had ever decreased since it was first instituted back in 2005-06.


Even with those dollars removed from the marketplace, business was brisk when the Emporium opened at noon on Friday. Most of the 30 teams in the league at least browsed, and some came to the cash register with full shopping carts. Soon after, many of the general managers of those teams took to the microphone to discuss their shopping sprees at subsequent press conferences.


The Caps were one of very few teams that merely window-shopped on Friday. Since then, Washington has made some low budget additions that were made mostly with an eye toward improving the AHL Hershey Bears.


With the Capitals’ annual summer development camp getting underway on Monday, Caps GM George McPhee was made available to the local media as he always is during camp week. McPhee spoke to local media for nearly 30 minutes just two weeks earlier, in advance of heading to Newark for the 2013 NHL Draft.


Most of that June 24 discussion was related to the draft and the Caps’ draft philosophy, but the Caps’ GM also touched on the subject of free agency.


“I don’t expect to be real active in free agency,” McPhee said during that June 24 presser. “We like our team and [have] pretty much everything that we think we’ll need. And we made a lot of our moves during the season, whether it was extending [goaltender Braden] Holtby, [defenseman Steve] Oleksy, [defenseman Jack] Hillen and trading for [left wing Martin] Erat – a top six player – so that we wouldn’t be in a position where we’d have to go out and sign free agents, because it just gets too expensive and too long, and you don’t know those players as well as you know your own players.”


Obviously, McPhee was true to his word and the Caps were mostly spectators during the first weekend of the free agent shopping season. The purchases they did make weren’t of the earth-shattering variety.


Even so, the first question posed to McPhee on Monday had nothing to do with rookie camp or prospects. It was about free agency and the Caps’ lack of activity.


“As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago,” said McPhee, “we didn’t think it was a great class of players. It wasn’t a great pool of players to invest in, so we didn’t.”


McPhee expounded a bit more on the Caps’ decision not to be involved in the pursuit of big-name free agents, and it should be noted here that “big-name” is a relative term in what was a weak free agent class this summer.


“There were a couple of players that we had interest in,” admitted McPhee, “But when the numbers get to where they were going either in terms of salary or term, you stay away. And we didn’t really make any offers. We just knew where they were going.


“Usually the issue is the term. The salary you can compete with, but when people get into term that gets to be too long and can ultimately hurt your competiveness down the road, you try to avoid it. That’s the big concern always with free agency and what happens around July 1. People get locked into things that certainly in the future you won’t be able to get out of. Under the current CBA, you can’t get out of those deals. You can’t hide people in the minors and that sort of thing. That’s why you avoid it.


“Sometimes you’ll be looking for a guy on a one-year deal [and] you have to give him two. And if you’re looking for a guy on a two-year deal, you have to give him three or four. [Roman] Hamrlik’s a good example. We wanted him for one, they wanted two. You give him two, but now he’s hardly playing in year two and gets in the way.”


The Caps signed veteran defenseman Hamrlik two summers ago and got a decent first year of service from him in 2011-12. But Hamrlik turned 39 late last season, and the lockout did him no favors. He played in the first three games of the ’13-14 season for Washington, and then was a healthy scratch for the better part of the next month. The Caps waived him in March, and the Rangers claimed him. With New York, Hamrlik soon found himself in the same situation, out of the lineup more than he was in it. He was used sparingly when he did play.


The Caps lost a pair of key performers from last season’s team during Friday’s opening day of NHL free agency. Center Mike Ribeiro inked a four-year deal with Phoenix that will pay him $5.5 million a season and fourth-line left wing-center Matt Hendricks earned a four-year deal for $1.85 million per campaign.


Washington offered both players competitive multi-year deals during the 2012-13 season, but both opted to test the free agent waters and both were rewarded well for doing so.


“We made our best offers at the trading deadline with both of our players,” said McPhee of negotiations with Ribeiro and Hendricks. “We like both of those guys a lot as people [and] as players. But we make our decisions around the trading deadline and far in advance of July 1 and July 5.


“You can’t wake up on those days and say, ‘What are we going to do?’ This takes a lot of planning and it’s almost a year in advance. When the season got going in January, we started talking about our plan and we started signing people. We signed seven players in February, March and April and added another player in Erat.


“We talked to Mike before the season started and we talked to Hendy before the season started and again in January and February and right up to the trading deadline and went at them hard. And we knew then that based on what they were looking for it was probably not going to happen.”


The absence of Ribeiro and Hendricks naturally leads to the question of who will replace them. Washington obtained Aaron Volpatti off waivers from Vancouver in late February and subsequently signed him to a two-year contract extension. Volpatti is first in line to replace Hendricks when training camp gets underway this September.


At least for now, McPhee says the replacement for Ribeiro is Brooks Laich, the longest tenured player in the Washington organization. Laich joined the Caps nearly a decade ago in the deal that sent Peter Bondra to the Ottawa Senators.


“If you look around the league it’s a hard position to fill,” says McPhee of the second line center slot. “How many teams in this league have a couple of elite centers? Five or six, maybe.


“Generally you need a really good two-way player to play there which is why we’re looking at Brooks Laich to play there now. We had him there in the playoffs a couple of years ago and liked it a lot. He’s a natural center, grew up playing center and we think it’s time to play him there. He gives you the size and the speed you’re looking for, the good two-way play you’re looking for, the good face-offs and we want to play a better-paced game. We want more speed and we think he’s capable of it.


“We don’t see any real difference in terms of ability to play between Brooks and – if you look around the league – a Mike Fisher in Nashville or a Mike Richards in L.A. or a David Backes in St. Louis. [They’re] the same kind of players in terms of ability to play. We tried something with [Alex Ovechkin] last [season] switching positions, and it worked out pretty well. So we want to do this with Brooks.”


The quality of the annual free agent pool seems to dwindle just a bit every summer. The main reason for that decline in excellence is that teams are now much more in the habit of “buying” some unrestricted free agent years from players when they’re signed as restricted free agents. Buying those UFA years is now seen as solid business practice in the NHL; it enables teams to retain players they’ve invested heavily in via the draft, thereby keeping them in the organization beyond the usual free agency age of 26.


Teams that regularly build via free agency end up paying a premium to do so. The Caps’ most glaring needs – top four lefty defenseman and a second line center – weren’t in plentiful supply in this summer’s class, and the players that fit those profiles and did get signed got paid more than Washington wanted to pay them.


The Caps have approximately $8 million of salary cap room available to spend, but the lion’s share of that sum must be set aside to sign restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson. Alzner is a top pair defenseman and Johansson was the team’s first-line left wing last season. Those don’t figure to be budget signings.


Defensemen Andrew Ference and Rob Scuderi are both in their mid-30s, but as unrestricted free agents, both got four-year deals that pay them upwards of $3 million annually. Second-line center UFA candidates Stephen Weiss, Valtteri Filppula and Derek Roy were all coming off down seasons, but all got paid anyway. Weiss got five years for $4.9 million annually while Filppula also got five years for an even $5 million a season. Roy signed a one-year deal, but one that pays him $4 million for the upcoming season.


While some of those players may have made some sense for Washington, none of those contracts made sense for the Capitals. Signing any one of those players might not have left the Caps with enough cap space to accommodate both Alzner and Johansson.


It’s also wise to leave at least a bit of breathing room between a team’s payroll and the salary cap ceiling.


“You don’t win the Cup in the summer,” noted McPhee. “We’ve always analyzed it in the way that you try to do what’s best for the Washington Capitals. If the contract doesn’t work for the Washington Capitals, then why do it? If you’re consistently going to the free agent market every summer to build your team, then there is something wrong with your team or your organization because that’s not the way to develop a team.


“Every once in a while, if the pool of players is right and there is something there that makes sense, then go ahead. But we didn’t see that this summer. I look at Chicago and Boston last summer, they didn’t do anything like that and they were in the finals this year.


“We like our team. We’re a solid NHL team. And unfortunately these free agent signings end up being [unwise]. Over the last few years like 50 percent of the compliance buyouts are July 1 signings. We’re trying to figure out which one is going to be the double buyout. Who is going to get bought out twice? We don’t want to get into that game. We’ve been fairly circumspect in that area. We’ve put good teams on the ice the last six years and we’re going to continue to do so.”


Including the January compliance buyouts of Wade Redden and Scott Gomez, there were 20 compliance buyouts in the NHL in the wake of the lockout and the new CBA. Nine of the 20 (45%) were players originally signed during July free agency.


The concept of compliance buyouts is a new and temporary one in the NHL. It’s the equivalent of two “get out of jail free” cards for each club, meaning there are a total of 60 of them to be used (during designated periods) no later than next summer. One third of them have already been cashed in. Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal and Toronto have already used each of their allotted pair of compliance buyouts.


Washington used one of its buyouts to get out from under the final year of defenseman Jeff Schultz’s contract, a deal that would have cost the Caps $2.75 million of cap space for 2013-14. Schultz had requested a trade, and the Caps had been unable to accommodate his wish. He signed a one-year deal for $700,000 with Los Angeles on Friday.


More than four dozen players switched teams in a span of about 10 hours starting at noon on Friday. Another half dozen or so resigned with their previous teams. Hundreds of millions of dollars were committed in those contracts.


In the four full days since Friday, the market has cooled markedly. A total of 24 players have changed teams since opening day at the Emporium, with exactly one of those 24 players (Roy) signing for a figure above $1 million and only one of those players (Andrew Ebbett) signing for a term of more than one year.


There are still dozens and dozens of free agents looking for work, including the likes of Ilya Bryzgalov, Tim Thomas, Tom Gilbert, Douglas Murray, Ryan Whitney, Mason Raymond, Dustin Penner, Mikhail Grabovski, Vinny Prospal, Danny Cleary, Damien Brunner, Brad Boyes, Jaromir Jagr and Brenden Morrow. We’re starting to see the effect of removing $180 million from the summertime market place; it has a drastically different effect than the usual salary cap increase has had over the last several summers.


As the summer of 2013 wears on, some of the above named players may find themselves more willing to accept a one-year deal for short money, simply to give themselves a landing spot and a place to prove themselves worthy of a bigger payday next summer when the salary cap figures to increase by perhaps 10 percent. The most optimal landing places for those players will be teams that have a strong talent base, and teams that have been consistent in making or figure to make the playoffs in 2014.


Washington qualifies by those terms. McPhee says the Caps are unlikely to do anything, but he didn’t completely close the door. And he did mention that corresponding moves (read: a trade) could have been made or could be made if the Caps would have found something to their liking on the market.


“Our roster is pretty much full,” says McPhee. “Again, we got out ahead of this months ago. We’ve added to Hershey and the depth and everything else there so we don’t anticipate doing much more, if anything.”


We may be looking at the 2013-14 Caps roster right now. But it’s also possible – as was the case in the summer of 2009 – that McPhee finds a piece and a price to his liking a week to 10 days after the Emporium’s doors opened. He signed center Brendan Morrison to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million on July 10, 2009, nine days after signing right wing Mike Knuble on the first day of the signing period.


General managers spend virtually every waking hour thinking of ways to improve their teams. There are a lot of waking hours between now and October, and free agency isn’t the only means by which to improve an NHL team. But free agency has frequently proven to be the least economical way of doing so.