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The Busiest Month

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
When the Washington Capitals finished up the 2003-04 regular season schedule with a 4-3 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh in April 4, 2004, a season that began with high hopes (and a high payroll) came to a quiet and ignominious close. With it, the NHL careers of several who wore a Caps sweater that afternoon also came to a close.

Including the players who were injured or scratched on that Sunday, there were 25 players in Washington’s employ at season’s end. Thirteen of them never played another game in the NHL, and 18 of them did not play for the Capitals again.

A lockout killed the 2004-05 NHL season, and it was five years ago this month that the 30 NHL clubs were shaking off the cobwebs of a season’s length of inactivity and eagerly anticipating the start of the upcoming 2005-06 campaign. But before teams could take the ice for the league’s grand re-opening on Oct. 5, 2005, there was plenty of off-ice work to be done.

On Aug. 1, 2005, the league was inundated with the greatest glut of unrestricted free agents in NHL history. When the lockout finally and officially came to an end in late July, the 30 teams hastily assembled for a slapdash 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Then the clubs girded themselves for some free agent shopping, but they did so with the new parameters of a salary cap world now in place. Teams could spend no more than $39 million to assemble their rosters for the 2005-06 season, and they would have to spend at least $21 million. Clubs had mere days to pore over the new collective bargaining agreement (some 600 pages in length), assimilate its nuances, devise and implement a roster-building strategy, and start making phone calls.

For the 30 NHL general managers, it truly and literally was a brave new world.

“I’m interested in reading the CBA and adjusting our plan to it,” Capitals general manager George McPhee told in the days immediately after the lockout’s end. “I’m excited about some of the young players we’re going to have in our lineup and seeing how quickly they can come together.”

McPhee brought in a number of those young players during the 2003-04 season when he engineered a number of trades, moving high-priced veteran talent in exchange for young prospects and draft picks. Anticipating the lockout ahead, the Caps were in effect hitting the “reset” button.

Having won the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery, the Capitals chose left wing Alex Ovechkin with the first overall choice in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Ovechkin played for Moscow Dynamo of the Russian Super League during the lockout season, and Caps fans were on pins and needles during the summer of 2005, wondering whether the dynamic winger would leave his homeland for the NHL or play another season in Moscow or Omsk, which had tendered him a lucrative offer sheet.

Getting Ovechkin under contract would give the Caps a franchise player, but the rest of the roster would require serious rebuilding as well. Of all the players who finished the 2003-04 season with Washington, only two (goaltender Olie Kolzig and forward Alexander Semin) were under contract for the 2005-06 season. With virtually an entire hockey team to put together and only about a month in which to do it, McPhee and his staff prepared for the busiest off-season month in the franchise’s history.

Caps fans were under no illusions. This was a rebuilding team, and Washington would be spending closer to the salary cap floor than to the ceiling. Here’s a quote from Caps majority owner Ted Leonsis from a Tarik El-Bashir piece in the July 23, 2005 edition of The Washington Post:

“This first year [under the league's salary cap economic system] we’re going to see what we have,” Leonsis said. “The key element in this new system is to have the ability to act at the right time [and get the] right player. Unlike the NBA, this is hard cap. And unlike the NFL, all of our contracts are guaranteed.

“So imagine if everyone went out and spent $39 million this year on long-term deals. You’re kind of done.”

McPhee echoed those comments in the same article.

“We’re not going to make huge commitments early on,” McPhee said. “But, as we’ve seen with Ted in the past, if we think we have a chance, we’ll go for it. The resources will be there.”

On Aug. 1, the shopping season began. On Aug. 31, the Caps brought Ovechkin to town for an introductory press conference. In between, the Capitals signed, re-signed, extended or traded for a total of 26 players, all of which have played in the NHL at some point.

The league’s general managers started slowly, dipping a toe in the new waters. The first day produced only a few signings, most notably the two-year deals the Florida Panthers bestowed upon veteran stars Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk.

By the end of the second day, the shyness had disappeared.

Atlanta signed Bobby Holik to a three-year deal worth $12.75 million. Boston paid $16.6 million for four years worth of Glen Murray and dropped another $8.4 million to sew up Dave Scatchard for four years. Calgary gave Tony Amonte $3.7 million for two seasons. Carolina signed Cory Stillman to a smart deal; $5.25 million for three years. Chicago gave Adrian Aucoin $16 million for four years and Columbus signed Adam Foote for three years and $13.8 million. Los Angeles locked up Pavol Demitra for three seasons at a total of $13.5 million. The Islanders gave Alexei Zhitnik $14 million for four years. The Rangers signed Marek Malik for three years and $7.5 million. Philadelphia locked up a pair of defensemen, inking Derian Hatcher for four years ($14 million) and Mike Rathje for five seasons ($17.5 million).

The next couple days brought more of the same – big money for medium names – but Washington stayed quiet. In an Aug. 4 Post article penned by El-Bashir, McPhee discussed the Caps’ philosophy.

“Our strategy is to spend money on the right player at the right price,” McPhee said last night. “We think this market is very overpriced. It’s akin to jumping into the stock market when it’s at its height. We’ve been involved in discussions, but we are not going to jeopardize the future of this hockey club.
“Some teams are going to regret [the long-term free agent] deals in a few years. The salary cap could go down next year. That would put some teams in quite a bind. We’re committed to playing our young players next season.”

While the age at which a player can become a free agent has dropped to 26, it was still set at 31 in the summer of 2005. As you can see from the list of players above, the hazard of paying 30-something players (who hadn’t played NHL hockey for more than a year) for past performance was very prevalent five summers ago.

Knowing the Caps would struggle for a few seasons immediately after the lockout, McPhee concentrated on getting certain types of players to Washington.

“Chemistry has always been an elusive intangible,” said McPhee in his summer 2005 interview with “The best way to try to capture it is to have the people who are coming into your organization – whether it’s through trades or free agency – be good solid people. That’s the best and only place to start. People who lack character don’t often contribute to the chemistry of your club and make your club better. We’re going to be on the lookout for good people who are also good players.”

On Aug. 4, the Caps added character and improved their chemistry when McPhee obtained right wing Chris Clark and a seventh-round pick (in 2007) from Calgary for a sixth-rounder (in 2007) and a seventh-rounder (in 2006). That deal will stand as one of the best in McPhee’s tenure. Clark later became the Caps’ captain and he scored 20 goals in his first season and 30 in his second season with Washington.

Calgary’s recent addition of aging speedster Amonte had made Clark expendable. Clark more than doubled (50 to 24) Amonte’s goal output for a fraction of the cost during the term of the latter’s pact with the Flames.

The District let out a collective sigh of relief on Aug. 5 when McPhee announced that Ovechkin had agreed to a three-year entry-level deal to begin his NHL career in 2005-06.

“I am extremely happy, pleased and grateful. I will try my absolute hardest not to disappoint you and the team,” Ovechkin said upon signing his contract.

“I would like to thank George McPhee and the entire organization for their support. I will work very hard to put the team first always and make the fans happy.”

Ovechkin has more than held up his end of that pledge over the last five years.

With his centerpiece in place, McPhee went back to work. Here’s a summary of the rest of his month, including contract terms for players who spent most of the ’05-06 season in the NHL:

8/8/05: Signed Miroslav Zalesak and Ben Clymer (one year, $662,500)

8/9/05: Signed Andrew Cassels (one year, $1.5 million) and Lawrence Nycholat

8/10/05: Signed Mathieu Biron (one year, $450,000) and Ivan Majesky (one year, $800,000)

8/11/05: Re-signed Jakub Cutta and Jared Aulin

8/12/05: Signed Jamie Heward (one year, $450,000) and Boyd Kane. Obtained Bryan Muir from Los Angeles

8/15/05: Re-signed Matt Pettinger (one year, $450,000)

8/16/05: Re-signed Jeff Halpern (one year, $1.2331 million), Brian Sutherby (one year, $647,900), Brendan Witt (one year, $1.672 million), Steve Eminger (one year, $945,630), Shaone Morrisonn ($668,800) and Maxime Ouellet

8/17/05: Signed Chris Bourque to an entry-level deal

8/18/05: Re-signed Dainius Zubrus (two years, $3.7 million) and J-F Fortin

8/18/05: Signed Matt Bradley (one year, $475,000)

8/23/05: Signed Petr Sykora

8/25/05: Signed Chris Clark (one year, $689,700) and David Steckel

8/30/05: Signed Bryan Muir (one year, $500,000)

Muir’s signing concluded the busiest month of business in franchise history. Training camp opened on Sept. 13, but McPhee wasn’t finished. He added Jeff Friesen in a Sept. 26 deal with the Devils and claimed Brent Johnson off waivers from Vancouver on Oct. 4.

Of the more than two dozen players who did business with Washington in the summer of 2005, only Ovechkin and Bradley remain in the District five years later.

In summers prior and since, August is the quietest month on the NHL calendar. That was not the case five years ago.

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