Now that the Capitals' offseason is officially underway following Wednesday's exit interviews at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the powers that be will have some tough decisions to make regarding the makeup of next year's team.
Entering the summer, Washington is about $5.6 million under the $64.3 million salary cap with seven free agents: two restricted and five unrestricted.
Only two of the unrestricted free agents -- forwards Joey Crabb, Wojtek Wolski and defenseman Tom Poti are the others -- actually have a legitimate chance of being re-signed: forwards Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks.
In regards to Ribeiro, the 33-year-old center was the Capitals' most valuable player through the first half of the season, scoring nine goals and assisting on 19 others through 24 games. He finished with 49 points, which equates to an 82-game pace of 83 points that would have tied a career high. More importantly, he finally filled a long-standing hole at the second-line center position.
Ribeiro made it clear Wednesday that he is seeking a contract of four to five years in length as he is looking for stability not just for himself, but for his family as well.
"If I can stay in the city and retire here, it’s more about the kids," said Ribeiro, who has three children. "I don’t want to move them too many times. School – they’re going into high school now, so if I can stay here until they go to college, or stay in the city until they go to college, that’s my focus.
"I still believe, you know, I can get better. I don’t see myself getting worse. It can only get better. I can be out there. I can work out more. There’s a lot of room there to improve and you know, that’s why I don’t think I should have less than four or five years.”
Ribeiro also said Wednesday that he doesn't want to be "selfish" by preventing the Capitals from making other moves with his contract demands.
Since 2010, only 14 unrestricted free agents aged 30 or over have received a contract of four years or longer during the free agency period, which begins July 5. Ribeiro, whose five-year, $25 million contract is about to expire, will likely not receive a similar contract simply because the Capitals may not be able to afford to. He is arguably the most coveted free agent on the open market this summer and will draw plenty of attention around the league.
As for Hendricks, he may not have the statistics that Ribeiro does --five goals, three assists in 48 games -- but his value is measured elsewhere. He is one of the more versatile players in the Capitals' lineup, plays significant minutes on the penalty kill and is willing to pay the physical price to help the team win, but above all else, he is a "character guy" and a locker room leader.
"Hendy, in my opinion, is probably the best team guy that I've played with," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "All-around, just doing a little bit of everything. I think he's a guy that can play on the first, second line; If you ask him to, he can find a way. He obviously does all the things that you'd want your typical fourth-liner to do.
"It would suck to see a guy like that go. He's the type of guy that every guy, every team wants to have."
Hendricks's last contract was a two-year deal worth $1.65 million and he is certainly due for a raise now that he has established himself as a reliable energy player in the NHL.
"I hope I don’t get to that date in July," he said, adding that there have been contract talks between his camp and the Capitals throughout the season. "I hope I’m back here in Washington. My wife, kids and I have made this our home, and we’ve come a long way here in the three years that I’ve played here. We really enjoy it, and I really enjoy the guys that I come to work with every day.”
Washington's two restricted free agents are Alzner and forward Marcus Johansson, which means that both should return. It's simply a matter of how much they'll earn.
Alzner will never fill up the scoresheet, but through his first three full seasons in the NHL, he has developed into the Capitals' top shutdown defenseman. He logged 22:18 of ice time and 3:16 of shorthanded ice time per game during the postseason, both of which were third-highest on the team. He definitely deserves more money than the $2.57 million he made over the last two years.
The less you hear about the 24-year-old, the better he's playing, but he placed more emphasis on being more active with the puck this season than he had in previous seasons.
"This year, people may not have noticed it, but I started to feel better with the puck," he said Wednesday. "I started to carry it a little bit more, lugging it out of the zone occasionally and trying to jump up in the play and that's something that I never ever did. You wouldn't catch me crossing the offensive blue line. I still panic when I get across that line. It's something that I'm trying to do more, trying to have a little more confidence with that.
"I always thought my game would be how I played in juniors, and that was being able to add in offensively here and there, and I always thought that's what my game would be here. I think over the last four, five years, I've been so worried about making sure I have a main thing down, which is defense, that I haven't really worried too much about the next part, so I'm hoping to sign a new deal and be able to be more comfortable and start evolving my game into something a little bit more desirable."
Meanwhile, Johansson's three-year, $2.7 million entry-level deal is also set to end. After establishing himself on the Capitals' first line with forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and seeing a vast improvement in his game upon his return from a concussion sustained during training camp, the Capitals will surely want to lock up the 22-year-old for a significant amount of time.
So that's four players to sign and less than $6 million to do so. The likelihood that both Ribeiro and Hendricks will return is slim solely based on the amount of room the Capitals have. There is also the intrigue of the long-awaited arrival of top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, who could finally play in the NHL at some point next season once his KHL contract expires.
Either way, this all will make for yet another interesting offseason in Washington.
"When you’re in a cap world, sometimes you just don’t have choices," general manager George McPhee said. "This is what you have to work with, and if it doesn’t fit for them you move on, you get someone else and that’s the world we live in now."
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