The Washington Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy two years ago, but were bounced from the postseason in a shocking first-round upset.
Instead of making wholesale changes, General Manager George McPhee made minor tweaks, mostly promoting from within. Last season the Capitals finished first in the Eastern Conference but were surprisingly swept out of the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
McPhee decided more significant alterations were needed this time around. What started with a trade for Troy Brouwer at the Entry Draft became a hefty renovation of the Capitals' roster on the first weekend of free agency.
"We wanted to complete our team," McPhee told reporters Friday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "Last summer, I felt we needed to add a defenseman and we weren’t able to do it and made the trade during the year [for Scott Hannan]. I would rather complete it now. We’re in good shape now. We have good depth. I think we have a good, strong team."
McPhee began the overhaul Friday by dealing goaltender Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a 2012 first-round pick and a second-round selection in either 2012 or 2013. The Capitals have had three top goaltending prospects; now they're down to two -- Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.
Varlamov's Russian-based agent had said his client wanted to play in the KHL next season and was not happy with the way he was treated this past season in Washington. Neuvirth played every minute during the postseason for the Capitals and would have been considered a slight favorite to be the No. 1 goaltender in training camp.
"He intimated to us that he was going to play in the KHL unless we guaranteed him a starter’s job and a big contract which we couldn’t do at this time," Washington owner Ted Leonsis said on his personal blog. "While disappointed in his manner during the negotiations and the way the Russian media manipulated the blogosphere over here, we received value back and we wish him well."
Added McPhee: "We were hoping to have Semyon back this year and play a full season so we could get that kind of value for him next summer because we knew we would have to do something with one of the goaltenders. But we got that value now. Given the injuries, I was surprised we got it now, but it was a good deal for Colorado -- they got a kid who has lots of upside and if he can stay healthy, will be really good for them."
The Caps then brought in a veteran goaltender to go along with their two remaining youngsters by snagging Tomas Vokoun with a $1.5 million, one-year deal on Saturday. Vokoun, the best goaltender to hit the free-agent market, is capable of carrying the load, as he did in Florida for the past five seasons. He can also serve as a mentor -- especially for Neuvirth, a fellow Czech.
The Capitals added depth at forward and on defense by signing free agents Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik in the opening hours of free agency. Halpern spent the first six seasons of his NHL career with the Capitals, and returned on a one-year contract worth $825,000.
Ward, who had 7 goals and 13 points in 12 postseason games for the Nashville Predators last season, inked a four-year, $12 million contract. Hamrlik, who becomes the team's most experienced defenseman with more than 1,300 NHL games played, signed a two-year, $7 million pact.
Hamrlik will replace Scott Hannan, who is an unrestricted free agent, but also provides insurance in case Tom Poti is unable to play next season. Poti has been plagued by a groin injury that McPhee has said could be a career-threatening problem.
Halpern is likely to replace Boyd Gordon, who signed with Phoenix, as the team's fourth-line center. Ward and Brouwer give the team more toughness and more depth on the wings. Matt Bradley signed with Florida and late-season acquisition Jason Arnott is not likely to return thanks to these additions.
"We wanted good, experienced players, committed players that do bring leadership," McPhee said. "We're really pleased. We didn’t think we would get all three. Those are the guys we targeted, so it worked out well and it works out really well on the cap for us."
McPhee still needs to sign Brouwer, who is a restricted free agent, and RFA defenseman Karl Alzner. The Capitals are near the ceiling of the salary cap, but Poti's $2.875 million might not count against it if he is placed on long-term injured reserve or is forced to retire.
"I wanted to have that feeling this summer where everything’s done, we can go with this team right now and we don’t have to touch a thing all season," McPhee said. "We could go the whole season with this group."