Four years to the day after they last signed an unrestricted free agent to a multi-year contract, the Washington Capitals splashed into the free agent pool on Saturday, and came out with defenseman Brian Pothier, most recently employed by the Ottawa Senators.
With 30 assists (second among Ottawa defensemen), 35 points and a plus-29 defensive rating (fifth among all NHL blueliners) in 2005-06, Pothier is coming off his best NHL season. He amassed those numbers while averaging just 16:46 a night on the star-studded Senators’ blueline, and could see his ice time increase by a third or more with Washington in 2006-07.
During a late-season stretch when the Sens were missing three of their top defensemen (Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden and Chris Phillips), Pothier played 23 or more minutes in eight straight games while sporting the alternate captain's "A." Included among that stretch was Washington's 1-0 win over the Sens in Ottawa on Apr. 1. Pothier topped out with 35:55 of ice time in a game against Buffalo on Apr. 5.
A 29-year-old native of New Bedford, Mass., Pothier received a four-year pact from the Caps that is worth a total of $10 million.
“He is a very mobile puck-moving defenseman who has performed well in the new NHL,” said Capitals vice president and general manager George McPhee in announcing the signing. “We believe he will be a top four defenseman on our team. We look forward to Brian playing an integral role in our continued growth over the next four years.”
Pothier went undrafted during his collegiate career at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. An ECAC Second-Team All-Star and member of the ECAC All-Tournament Team as a senior, Pothier signed with the Atlanta Thrashers within days of his final game as a collegian. He turned pro in 2000-01 and got into three games with Atlanta that season. The Thrashers dealt him to Ottawa in June, 2002 and he spent his first full season in the NHL with Ottawa in 2003-04.
“I am definitely a late-bloomer,” admitted Pothier. "It took me a little time to mature and understand the game. With the new rules, it really benefited me. I thrive on getting back, getting the puck and making that good first pass."
With Ottawa last season, Pothier collected three of his five goals and 17 of his 35 points on the power play. He is the puck-moving defenseman the Capitals were seeking, and joins Bryan Muir and Jamie Heward as Capitals defensemen under contract for 2006-07. Rookie Mike Green
and veteran Lawrence Nycho, who spent most of 2005-06 with AHL Hershey, is also signed for 2006-07. Earlier this week, the Capitals issued qualifying contract offers to defensemen Steve Eminger, Shaone Morrisonn and Jakub Cutta. Muir, Heward, Eminger and Morrisonn all averaged better than 20 minutes a night in the NHL last season.
Pothier may find his workload increased to that level in 2006-07, and says he would welcome such a bump.
“That is something you always dream about,” he said when asked about the possibility of an increased role in Washington. “As a player you want to be given more responsibility every year you play. I have gotten a little more responsibility every year and I have been responding to it. I am looking for the opportunity to play a bigger role.”
Pothier mentioned that he liked how the Capitals worked and competed in the games he played against them last season.
“It was always a hard-grinding game,” said Pothier of last season’s Caps-Sens matchups. “My wife and I are really excited about it. [The Capitals] are an exciting young team with a lot of hard-working guys.”
After his breakout season in 2005-06, Pothier fielded offers from several other clubs before settling on the Caps. Earlier in the day, Washington did more than just kick the tires in the Zdeno Chara sweepstakes. McPhee indicated the Caps were in the bidding to over $6 million a year on Pothier’s former Ottawa teammate, who inked a five-year deal worth $37.5 million with the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
McPhee indicated that any future upgrades to the blueline this summer would not likely involve free agent signings, but he did not rule out the possibility of trades. He also mentioned the possibility of bringing back a familiar face from 2003-04.
“We still own the rights to him,” said McPhee, when asked specifically about defenseman Josef Boumedienne. “We’re going to talk to his agent next week.”
Boumedienne and the Caps were unable to come to terms last summer, and the blueliner instead split the 2005-06 season between Zurich of the Swiss league and Sodertalje SK of the Swedish Elite League. Boumedienne’s skill set would likely be a good fit for the post-lockout NHL.
McPhee also mentioned that talks were ongoing with the Capitals’ group of restricted free agents and with unrestricted free agent center and team captain Jeff Halpern
“There is no progress to report today,” he said, when asked specifically about Halpern. “We’ll have a better idea [on Sunday],” he added, presumably referring to Halpern’s reaction to the Pothier signing. Halpern is thought to be assessing the Capitals’ ability to compete before deciding whether to return to Washington or go elsewhere in 2006-07.
In other Capitals matters, McPhee said that discussions to sign 2006 first-round pick Nicklas Backstrom
are also ongoing. Other upgrades/additions to the team’s forward corps are likely to come from within the organization, unless a strong value presents itself in what’s left of the free agent field.
“We’re going to leave a couple forward positions open and allow the young guys [in the organization] a chance to fill them,” said McPhee, noting that if young forwards fail early in the season they’re easier to replace than are defensemen.
The signing of Pothier is Washington’s first multi-year free agent signing since center Robert Lang inked a five-year deal worth $25 million on July 1, 2002. Pothier is the first free agent defenseman the Caps have signed to a multi-year deal since Sylvain Cote came back to Washington for his second tour of duty on July 6, 2000.