The NHL's free agency market officially opens for business on July 5, and the Capitals certainly do not find themselves in an enviable position.
As of Thursday, the Capitals are currently $6.2 million under the salary cap ceiling, which drops from $70.2 million to $64.3 million next season. Washington will have to stretch that $6.2 million -- the seventh-smallest amount according to 2013-14 projections from the incomparable CapGeek -- in order to potentially sign four free agents: restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson, and unrestricted free agents Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks.
General Manager George McPhee said last month -- and reiterated last week -- that he does not expect to make wholesale changes to his roster heading into the 2013-14 season, but that is because he has little to no money to do so. Yet McPhee does have some decisions to make, so what is he going to/can he do?
Using CapGeek and my vast (read: limited) knowledge of players' worths, I will attempt to figure out what the Capitals' roster will look like when the team reconvenes in Arlington for training camp in September.
Step 1/2: The $6.2 million amount ($6,265,705 to be exact) comes from demoting goaltending prospect Philipp Grubauer, who, barring unforeseen circumstances, will start the season with AHL Hershey.
Step 1: Buy out Jeff Schultz. It was reported last week (and later confirmed by McPhee) that the 27-year-old defenseman requested a trade near the end of the regular season after he was passed over in the depth chart.
As McPhee told reporters at the NHL Draft Combine, “If someone wants to be traded, we’ll trade him." Whether the Capitals do in fact trade Schultz or use one of their two compliance buyouts on him (in the simplest terms, it would allow the Capitals to pay Schultz 2/3 of the $3 million remaining on his contract to leave, removing his $2.75 million cap hit from the books), he shouldn't be on the team next year.
Remaining salary cap space: $9,015,705
Step 2: Sign the restricted free agents. Both Alzner ($1.27 million last season) and Johansson ($900.000) are due for raises. Alzner won't make as much as defenseman John Carlson does per season ($4 million beginning next season), but should see his salary more than double, probably in the $3-3.5 million range.
As for Johansson, McPhee tends to overvalue his players, and despite only earning 22 points in 34 games last season, Johansson played an integral role on Washington's first line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin in the latter half of the regular season. He could make somewhere between $1.5-$2 million.
Defenseman Tomas Kundratek, who appeared in 25 games for the Capitals last season, is also a restricted free agent and will likely garner a slight raise from his $600,000 NHL salary and $816,666 salary cap hit.
Assuming Alzner and Johansson earn the projected minimum and that Kundratek starts the season in Hershey (where his salary cap hit won't count against the Capitals), that is at least another $4.5 million tied up.
Remaining salary cap space: $4,515,705 (without Kundratek)
Step 3: (Potentially) sign the unrestricted free agents. Based on the current calculations, there is about $4.5 million to sign Ribeiro, who just finished a contract that paid him more than that per year ($5 million), and Hendricks, who could take up a sizeable chunk of the remaining space.
Ribeiro said before leaving for the season (and possibly forever) that the length of his contract -- he prefers four to five years -- is more important than the value as he is looking for stability for his family. Meanwhile, Hendricks has established himself as a reliable energy player in the NHL and he should receive his first major payday.
We'll take this step like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book.
You're George McPhee. You are prepared to negotiate with both Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks, your valued unrestricted free agents. Their agents are awaiting your call.
Choice: Do you call Ribeiro's agent?
Or: Do you call Hendricks's agent?
Ribeiro: At 33 years old, Ribeiro is looking for one last major contract. He wants a commitment of at least four years, something that you or very few teams in the NHL have done for a player his age. He'll take a pay cut, but as potentially the most sought after free agent on the market this summer, he will likely grab a lot of attention. His agent wants at least $4 million per season.
Choice: Do you agree to those terms?
Or: Do you walk away?
Agree: You sign Ribeiro to the long-term deal he desires, but that leaves you with under $1 million in cap space, which allows you to do pretty much nothing else. Hendricks hitches his wagon to another team willing to pay for his services.
Walk Away: You save a lot of money, but you let your second-leading scorer walk away and are left to fill the second-line center position from within again with Mathieu Perreault or Brooks Laich. Tim Connolly is also very much available.
Hendricks: The 31-year-old is the kind of player that every team loves to have, and you have the first crack at keeping him. Yes, his statistics were down this season (five goals, eight points in 48 games), but his value inside the locker room can't be quantified. That $800,000 needs to come up over $1 million. The New York Rangers are apparently interested. Are you willing to see Hendricks join them?
Choice: Do you agree?
Or: Do you walk away?
Agree: You re-sign Hendricks for around $1.2 million per season. You don't have enough money (around $3.3 million) to sign Ribeiro and your top six is in flux once again, but you do have enough to fill the remaining holes. A strong locker room voice remains.
Walk Away: Hendricks signs with the Rangers (or some other team) and strengthens their bottom six. Aaron Volpatti replaces Hendricks's skill set in theory, but the latter's leadership is sorely missed.
That wasn't as scary as Goosebumps, but this is: The Capitals will likely lose either Ribeiro or Hendricks. Either way, the team will be weakened,
Other things to consider: The Capitals need a seventh defenseman. That could be Kundratek (projected salary cap hit of at least $850,000) or Dmitry Orlov ($900,000).
Also, if forward prospect Tom Wilson makes the roster, then his cap hit of around $1.3 million is on the books. And lest we forget the possible long-awaited arrival of top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, so there needs to be room for him as well.
If you ask me, I believe that the Capitals will re-sign Hendricks because they won't have enough money to keep Ribeiro. Assuming they don't sign somebody from outside the organization, here's a potential lineup with cap values (projected values in bold):
Marcus Johansson ($1.5 million) - Nicklas Backstrom ($6.7 million) - Alex Ovechkin ($9,538,462)
Martin Erat ($4.5 million) - Brooks Laich ($4.5 million) - Troy Brouwer ($3,666,667)
Jason Chimera ($1.75 million) - Mathieu Perreault ($1.05 million) - Eric Fehr ($1.5 million)
Matt Hendricks ($1.2 million) - Jay Beagle ($900,000) - Joel Ward ($3 million)
Aaron Volpatti ($575,000)
Karl Alzner ($3 million) - Mike Green ($6,083,333)
John Erskine ($1,962,500) - John Carlson ($3,966,667)
Jack Hillen ($700,000) - Steven Oleksy ($541,667)
Dmitry Orlov ($900,000)
Braden Holtby ($1.85 million)
Michal Neuvirth ($2.5 million)
TOTAL (22 players): $62,184,295
Available room: $2,275,705
Feel free to leave questions/comments/concerns/alternative "Choose Your Own Adventure" scenarios below.
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