When the Toronto Maple Leafs bought out the contract of center Mikhail Grabovski on July 4, the Washington Capitals were immediately identified by media outlets as a possible suitor.
The Capitals weren't going to re-sign Mike Ribeiro, so they were going to be short a second-line center. They weren't going to be able to commit to a big contract, so while other top free agents found new homes, the Capitals waited.
Fifty days after Grabovski became a free agent, he signed a one-year, $3 million pact with the Capitals. After not making any moves early, Washington might have landed the best value on the market.
"It is a very significant signing for us. We played some poker on it," general manager George McPhee told NHL.com. "It took a while, but it had to be the right deal for both parties. That's just the reality of the salary-cap world. We believe that this would be a real good fit for him. That's what players have to worry about more now than ever. Worry about the fit, then you'll play well and the money will be there. I don't think we had to do a lot to convince him it was a good fit."
Grabovski could start on the second line for Washington, which likely means skating with Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer. Grabovski may see time with Alex Ovechkin, because though Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been together for years, they've also been split up for short spells on several occasions.
The Capitals likely were going to start the season with Brooks Laich as their No. 2 center, but he can now move to the third line and the team no longer has a potential issue with depth down the middle.
For about as long as Backstrom has been the Capitals' No. 1 center, finding someone to slot behind him has vacillated between a short-term answer and a serious concern. If Grabovski plays well, he might command a contract like the one Ribeiro signed with the Phoenix Coyotes (four years, $22 million).
"It wasn't about trying to replace Ribeiro," McPhee said. "When we made the trade for him, we knew we might only have him for one year but we thought it would be good for us and it was. It was really good for him and really good for us. I just don't see it as a replacement.
"The carousel just keeps moving. One player gets off and another gets on, but we think that we have three players coming into our lineup in Laich and Erat and Grabovski. We didn't have Laich or Erat for very long last year and hopefully we have them for 82 games each this year. When you add Grabovski, I think our forward group is really deep. We have a lot of elements, a lot of speed, guys that can score. We can roll four good lines."
Grabovski became a focal point for the advanced-statistics community after his production found on the back of a hockey card lagged in 2012-13. He was Toronto's best forward for several seasons in the advanced puck-possession stats and was among the best last season despite facing tougher competition and starting more shifts in the defensive zone, two things that naturally make it tougher to produce points (he finished with 16 in 48 games).
NHL teams are typically secretive about what types of advanced statistics they use, and McPhee is among the most reticent when it comes to offering up information, regardless of the sensitivity of the topic.
It is safe to say the Capitals were willing to look past a drop in goals and assists and recognize that Grabovski could be an impact player for them.
"We do our own analytics, and we're not going to give our ammunition away, but of course we do that," McPhee said. "There's lots of things to look at. There's [the analytics] and what your eyeballs tell you, and then you talk to people who have worked with him, whether it is teammates or managers or coaches, and you put it all together and try to make the best decision you can. Everything we did here came up like, 'This is a go. This would be a great move for the hockey club, a great addition.' We're really pleased it worked out. It is a late-summer signing that could make a big difference."