Capitals: Free agent window shopping – Vokoun bombshell

It’s been a busy 24 hours for George McPhee to say the least.  Since the free agency period began on July 1, the Capitals have made major strides in changing their identity for the upcoming season.  The additions of Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Halpern, and Tomas Vokoun presumeably catapult the Capitals to the top of the Eastern Conference contender list. 

The action actually started prior to the free agency period if you include the trade for Troy Brouwer at last week’s draft, plus the re-signing of Brooks Laich to a six year contract.  After last season’s early playoff exit, the discussion was to whom the blame should fall on.  Many felt that Bruce Boudreau was out-coached by Guy Boucher in the series against the Lightning – coupled with his tenure being marked with consistent underachievement.  Those in that camp felt that the team needed a new head boss, and called Boudreau to lose his job.  The other camp consisted of those who felt the players were at fault, and changes to the roster were necessary.  It was a down year for the entire team offensively, injuries plagued the team down the stretch, and the team was transitioning from a run-and-gun style, to a shutdown trap team.  The events of the past week, and more importantly the last 24 hours is a clear indication of whom McPhee felt was responsible for the disappointing season.  The Caps needed some serious re-tooling, and McPhee has delivered.

The addition of Joel Ward is an important addition because he is a big physical winger.  Ward comes from a defense first team in Nashville and should fit in quite nicely with the Capitals who will continue their transition into a defensive juggernaut.  Joel Ward isn’t one to light up the score sheet, but don’t let his career stats fool you.  He was a breakout player in the playoffs last year scoring seven goals in 12 games.  He chipped in six assists and was a plus 4 in those 12 games.  At just 30 years of age, Ward has plenty of gas left in the tank.  He will be a Capital for the next four years - his contact totaling $12 million.  Make no mistake, Ward was brought in to help change the Capitals identity from a high scoring “soft” team, to a tough defensive team.  The Capitals need to be a physical force in the Eastern Conference, and Joel Ward helps that cause.

With the departure of Boyd Gordon to the Phoenix Coyotes, the Capitals were in need a fourth line center.  They got that with a familiar face in Jeff Halpern.  The Potomac, MD native will be coming home to the Capitals, the team he began his NHL career with.  This is another attempt by McPhee to become a more veteran and experienced team.  Halpern and Gordon are similar players in that both are faceoff specialists who also kill penalties.  But Halpern brings with him experience and a voice in the locker room.  A season ago, the Capitals were starved for a voices in the locker room.  Halpern brings this.  Halpern also contributed on the scoresheet a season ago with the Canadiens.  If the Capitals can get 11 goals from Halpern like the Habs did a season ago – for under $1 million – it’s a steal.

Another area the Capitals wanted to improve on was the blue line – enter Roman Hamrlik.  Hamrlik was signed to a 2-year contract worth $7 million.  Hamrlik is yet another puck moving defensmen who can move the puck and play the power play.  What I really like about this deal in that Hamrlik is a left-handed shot who can play the power play.  Mike Green, Dennis Wideman, and John Carlson are all right-handed shots which provides some limitation on how the puck is moved on the power play.  Hamrlik now provides a different option and a different look on the power play.  With this addition, the blue line does become a bit crowded for the Capitals.  More on that in a bit.

And finally, a bombshell was dropped today when it was announced that the Capitals signed Tomas Vokoun.  Vokoun played with the Panthers a season ago, and was widely considered to be one of the most sought after goalies in the free agent class.  The signing of Vokoun was made possible when McPhee traded Semyon Varlamov to the Avalanche for a 1st round pick and a 2nd round pick in either 2012 or 2013.  This was an absolute steal of a trade for the Capitals.  The 1st round pick acquired from the Avalanche is not lottery protected, so if the Avalanche fail to make the playoffs this upcoming season, they could end up in the lottery.  If everything works in the Capitals favor, it is feasable that Varlamov was traded for a top five pick.  But it doesn’t end there.  The deal for Vokoun is a one year contract for $1.5 million.  The avalanche were able to sign Varlamov for three years at $2.8 million per season.  This means the Capitals were able to sign Vokoun, a franchise goaltender, for less money then what Varlamov was asking for, AND pick up a 1st and 2nd round pick from the Avalanche.  McPhee turned into an absolute magician with this deal.  I was in the group that felt the Capitals were okay in net with Michal Neuvirth coming off a break out season.  But Vokoun is a game changer.  The Caps now have an all Czech goaltending tandem that rivals any pair in the NHL.

The Capitals still have some unfinished business to attend to.  Both Karl Alzner and Troy Brouwer remained unsigned.  With all free agent acquisitions the Capital made, cap space is at a premium.  The Caps find themselves with just $500K of cap room remaining with both Alzner and Brouwer needing to be signed.  The Capitals will be signing both of these players.  What this means in that the Capitals will have to make a trade to free up space to fit both contracts under the cap.  The acquisitions of Brouwer and Ward leave the Caps with plenty of options on the wing.  This means guys like Alex Semin and Eric Fehr may be on the move.  Semin is entering first and final year of his one year deal and will earn $6.7 million this season.  His contract alone would make room for both Alzner and Brouwer.  A season ago I would have told you it would extremely difficult to move a contract of that size (in dollars).  But that was before the NHL raised the salary cap to $64 million.  In tandem with the increase to the cap, the cap floor also increased.  This means that team still needing to reach the cap floor may have room for Semin’s $6.7 million cap hit.  Semin has been enigmatic for the entirety of his career.  But his talent and skill is world class, and most teams would love to have a 35 goal scorer on their roster.  The Capitals also have some spare pieces on the blue line that could become expendable as well.  Dare I say Mike Green?  It is unlikely that Green will be moving before the start of the season, but the Capitals have enough puck moving defenseman for two teams let alone themselves.  If the market is any indication, re-signing Mike Green next year will be an expensive proposition.  With Christin Erhoff getting $4 million per season from the Sabres, perhaps you think about moving Green in an attempt to dump some salary.  Again…..it is not likely, but it is something should at least be talked about.

So all these moves may just be the beginning of something even bigger.  One thing we know for sure is that the Caps must make some trades in order to sign two important pieces to the puzzle.  It is just a waiting game to see when those moves are made. 

All salary figures courtesy of CapGeek.

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About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.

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