The Undertaker has quite an undertaking ahead of him. No, not another Caps playoff run – George ‘The Undertaker’ McPhee is going to have to take the fighting spirit he had as a player into contract negotiations this summer. Before July 1st the Caps GM has to re-sign or replace 10 players, four of which are restricted free agents. McPhee has his work cut out for him, he will have to work magic and miracles to keep this Caps roster intact.
McPhee has $20.5 million to divvy up between 10 players. Among those up for new contracts are players like All-Star Dennis Wideman and up-and-comers John Carlsson and Mathieu Perreault, who are up for promotions. Seasoned veterans Mike Knuble, who will be 40 next season, and Jeff Halpern, 36 next season, also must be claimed, dealt or left to walk away before July 1st. Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Tomas Vokoun are also in the same boat.
As it stands right now the Caps are the NHL’s second-biggest spenders (behind the Philadelphia Flyers) and they have one of the league’s tightest caps (pardon the pun). Despite this season’s stumble to the playoffs, the Caps’ success in the last four seasons has been built around a core of players who are now facing the axe. Each one of these players has been with the club since the ‘08-‘09 season. That year was a turning point for the franchise, ending a three-year playoff drought and sparking what’s been some of the most successful seasons in franchise history, playoff inconsistency notwithstanding. In the last four seasons the Caps have topped the Eastern Conference in points twice, won all four division titles as well as a Presidents’ Trophy in ‘09-‘10 for finishing with the most points in the regular season. While the Caps have had their share of struggles this season, no one’s chalking it up to a lack of raw talent.
If the 13-year contract of Alexander Ovechkin and 10-year deal of Nicklas Backstrom are any indication of McPhee’s intentions this summer, you might expect the upcoming contracts to be as long-term as possible. The franchise has short- and long-term goals to address this summer, including rebounding from a rocky season and making the most of the next decade with Ovechkin. They can try to keep as many players on the roster as they can, maintaining a group that’s been successful in the past, or McPhee can try to blow it up, as he did with the coaching situation, to shake them out of their current rut.
There are lots of questions to be answered this off-season. What will he do with goaltender Vokoun who will be 36 next season? Will they be able to afford the high price tag for offense in Semin while still shelling out for Ovie and Backstrom? Will assistant captain Mike Knuble stick around to provide much-needed leadership, or bow out and pass the torch to the next generation? What happens to injury-prone defenseman Mike Green? These questions will all have to be answered by July 1st.
For now, it appears as though the sleeping giants of the Eastern Conference have woken with four straight wins helping them hold on to the 8th and final playoff position. While fans may fret over where their favourite player’s fortunes may bring them in the summer, we have to hope that definitive choices either way will help the 2012-‘13 Caps regain the chemistry that’s been wavering this season.
Matt Stephen is a writer, not a fighter. He is both a beer and fantasy league veteran and has written about hockey online and in print for The Hockey News. He now covers the spectrum from the White House to Mike Green. He carries a picture of Ovechkin in his wallet.