Caps aim to retain key pieces

Last summer the Washington Capitals went on the offensive July 1, the first day NHL teams are permitted to sign free agents.

This year they likely will spend most of their time playing defense.

While general manager George McPhee said recently he doesn’t expect to be very active in pursuing other teams’ players - defenseman Tom Poti, forward Viktor Kozlov and center Michael Nylander were signed in the first two days last year - he still has several key pieces from last year’s division-winning club to re-sign.

Chief among them are defenseman Mike Green and goaltender Cristobal Huet. Green is a restricted free agent, meaning if another team signs him to an offer sheet, the Caps have the right to match or receive draft picks as compensation.

The 22-year-old Green had a breakout season last year, leading all NHL defensemen in goals with 18 and logging nearly 24 minutes a night - a figure that actually is higher if only the 61 games Bruce Boudreau coached are considered.

San Jose’s Brian Campbell is the top unrestricted free agent defenseman available, but Green and Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester are probably the next best two. Teams that lose out on Campbell will have to consider yielding multiple draft picks, but both are cornerstone defensemen.

“I will just say it is an ongoing discussion. We’re trying to find a solution that works for everybody involved,” said Craig Oster, who represents Green for Newport Sports Management.

Oster did say he wants his client to be compensated “in line with what other talented young players around the league and on the Capitals are making.” Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf - widely considered the top young defenseman in the league - has signed a long-term contract worth an average of $6.5 million a season, while several other top young defensemen have inked deals to pay them between $3 million and $4.5 million.

Huet, who will turn 33 in September, is an unrestricted free agent and the top goaltender in a thin market. He was magnificent for the Caps after coming to the team from Montreal in a trade, going 11-2 and helping Washington capture a division title.

The French-born netminder made $2.75 million last season. His stellar play for the Caps combined with the lack of legitimate No. 1 goalie options available (Colorado’s Jose Theodore is the only other goaltender who is comparable) could drive Huet’s price tag up.

Colorado (if Theodore is not re-signed), Los Angeles and Ottawa are three teams that could make a serious play for Huet’s services.

“You have to wait until Christmas morning to find out what is under the tree,” said Huet’s agent, Stephen Bartlett. “I think Cristobal is a good goalie, and there are not a lot of good goalies out there. I think in this situation there is always the temptation to see what the market will bear.”

Beyond Green and Huet are other important players from last year’s group. Restricted free agent Brooks Laich had career bests in goals (21), points (37) and power-play goals (eight).

Laich’s versatility also was a huge plus for the Caps. He was able to shift from center to the wing and from a checking role to a scoring line depending on the team’s needs. He made $725,000 last season after going to arbitration with the team - something that could be an option again this season - but he, like Huet, can probably expect at least to double his salary.

“I would just say we’re talking,” said Roland Thompson, Laich’s agent. “Is it to the point where phones are being slammed on each other? No. Do they want Brooks back? Yes. Does he want to be back with the Capitals? Absolutely, yes - we just have to find a place that is a perceived fair-market deal for us and where they feel it is a good-market deal for them.”

While it would appear unlikely that deadline acquisition Matt Cooke will return, Sergei Fedorov’s return still is a possibility. The 38-year-old Fedorov was rejuvenated in the latter stages last season, and he showed flashes of the guy who was once the best player in the sport.

Fedorov made $6.08 million last year but is willing to take less to stay in the NHL. He also could choose to play in the new Continental Hockey League in his native Russia if the pay cut is deemed to be too drastic.

“The Russian option is still there until he signs with an NHL club,” said Pat Brisson, who is Fedorov’s agent. “They are very interested in him. Whether he were to make that jump this year or next year or two years, I think he first wants to pursue an NHL contract.”

McPhee declined to comment for this story.

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