The opening of the NHL's free-agency period came quietly Sunday, with a limited number of quality unrestricted free agents up for grabs. The Capitals only made a minor move, signing forward Joey Crabb from Toronto to add to Washington's fourth-line depth.
For a franchise that has made a signing on July 1st all but one year since the lockout, it has certainly been an unusual start to the free-agency period for the Capitals. But Washington management had been hinting for weeks that they might opt to take another avenue to try and improve themselves this summer.
Before the draft, Capitals General Manager George McPhee intoned that he wasn't enamored with the thin crop of free agents available this summer due to the expiring collective bargaining agreement causing players to avoid hitting unrestricted free-agent status this summer. McPhee indicated that he was more likely to go the trade route than overspend for a player in what has quickly become a seller's market.
On Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, McPhee affirmed he wasn't thrilled with his free-agency options as even mid-level players were getting long-term offers for sizeable sums as teams looked to improve themselves with "not a great crop" of talent available.
"It's a very inflated market this summer," McPhee said. "There aren't very many players. At some point you start inventing players and making them out to better than they are and paying more than you should. At some point, it's best to sit back and stay out of it."
McPhee also noted how the bidding wars for the limited talent that is available has put several potential targets out of Washington's range.
"We've explored everything and sort of determined what our thresholds would be [for free agents]," McPhee said. "Once we go beyond a certain threshold, we move on. You got to do what you think is right in terms of dollars and term, and with respect to certain players, if it doesn't make sense, you don't do it. It's got to be right for us."
On Monday, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis also touched on the fact that while the Capitals have $19,855,428 in estimated cap space per CapGeek.com after the Crabb signing, fans shouldn't expect Washington to be using most of it this summer.
"At the NHL draft, because we had cap space, we were able to make a trade and added a veteran player's salary to our team," Leonsis wrote on his blog. "We had certainty by making a trade and we believe we improved our team with this trade - we were able to do it because we had cap space. We are also active in free agency now, because we have cap space. But it is an uncertain time - just because we have the cap space - doesn't mean we can use it."
It certainly echoed what McPhee told reporters last week at the Adam Oates press conference.
"[Having the space] doesn't mean you have to use it all now," McPhee said. "You can use it during the season or at the [trade] deadline. It's expensive to use it now. If you do something, it's always more than the guy's worth."
Although the Capitals have been one of the clubs that have spent near the cap in recent seasons, Leonsis wrote that spending in free agency - particularly with the length of deals being handed out on the first day - was a risky way to operate.
"Of all of the tools available, free agency has the most risk, costs the most as you always over pay (because you are in a bidding situation against other teams), and is the most uncertain - just because you have cap space doesn't mean you can use it and get what you want as to a player joining your team.
"And free agency burns though cap space for a long term in that free agents tend to sign longer term deals. That translates to high risk and no guarantee of high reward. The free agent you do sign had better be the right player, as the player will get paid a lot of money and also get a lot of term."
Does that mean Washington doesn't make an attempt to improve this summer?
Doubtful, but with the money being spent on free agents this offseason with a limited pool available - and apparently the Caps not finding a whole lot of solutions in the current marketplace that work into their budget - it seems more likely Washington will look to fill its needs via trades.
The Capitals certainly aren't alone in tepid interest in the current free agent market, as while some teams will apparently make Zach Parise and Ryan Suter among the highest-paid players in the game, you can expect the trade market to loosen up once teams that don't find their answer in free agency look to improve in the trade route.
It's not unprecedented for McPhee to operate with his club as a work in progress, as the last two seasons, despite a viable lack of a second-line center, McPhee hoped the problem would correct itself internally. When it didn't two seasons ago, McPhee swung a deal to get Jason Arnott from New Jersey. But the problem didn't fix itself so easily last February, as Washington had to cobble together a center corps down the stretch until Nicklas Backstrom returned from injury.
Now, with Washington still needing a second-line forward to pair with trade acquisition Mike Riberio, it seems like the Capitals will be patient and see what the trade market will bring in the coming weeks - or months.
McPhee indicated he would be happy to see what his current roster would do, noting that Troy Brouwer finished just three goals back of Alexander Semin's 21. But there is a bit of pressure from the rest of the Southeast Division as well, as the Hurricanes have made it known they will be spending more money to improve, and the Panthers and Lightning have made steps towards improving themselves as well.
While it's a frustrating process for fans, with the Capitals' seeming unwillingness to take on a big, long-term contract, it appears that help to replace the goals left behind apparently departing Semin will have to wait.
"There's a time to get in and a time to stay away," McPhee said. "You can survive the loss of a player, but it's hard to survive bad contracts.
"Last summer was a decent time for us, we still have [Hamrlik and Ward], that was a good time to get, and this summer doesn't seem to be a good time to get in."