- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Washington Capitals retained their top young defenseman and solved their goaltending quandary during the first day free agents could sign with new NHL teams.

But the man signed to be in net on opening night isn’t the one everyone expected.

The Caps signed former Colorado Avalanche netminder Jose Theodore to a two-year, $9 million contract Tuesday. The 31-year-old won both the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2002 with Montreal.

“I was negotiating with [Colorado], and I saw things weren’t going well,” Theodore said. “[The Caps] have grown so much the past couple of years that is obviously a great place for any goalie to go. When I saw they didn’t sign Cristobal, that was obviously the No. 1 option on my list.”

Earlier in the day, defenseman Mike Green signed a four-year, $21 million deal.

Capitals general manager George McPhee was atypically indulgent when it came to the negotiations with goaltender Cristobal Huet, who last season joined the Caps at the trade deadline and went 11-2 to help the club secure a division title. McPhee said the team initially offered Huet a three-year contract at $3.7 million a season, and his agent, Stephen Bartlett, counter-offered three years at $5 million.

Over the past several weeks, the team’s offer increased to $5 million, according to McPhee, but Bartlett wanted to test the open market. Shortly after the Caps nabbed Theodore, Huet signed a four-year, $22.5 million contract with Chicago.

“We wanted to be pragmatic about this and do the right thing for the club both in the short term and the long term,” McPhee said. “We got Theodore - who we think is every bit as good of a goaltender - for a two-year term and less money.”

Theodore slumped after the lockout with the Canadiens, and the team traded him to the Avalanche for netminder David Aebischer in March 2006. His play didn’t improve during the 2006-07 campaign, and he lost the majority of the playing time to Peter Budaj.

Last year, he posted a 28-21-3 record, a 2.44 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage in the regular season. He led the Avalanche to a first-round playoff upset of Minnesota before eventual champion Detroit swept them in the Western Conference semifinals.

“For me, two years was the perfect deal,” said Theodore, who last season was in the final year of a three-year, $16 million contract. “Not last year but the two previous years I struggled, and I’ve got my game back, but I think two years is perfect so you can really readjust your position in a couple of years.”

While he had made his intention to leave public earlier this offseason, Tuesday also marked the official end of Olie Kolzig’s tenure in the District. Kolzig won a franchise-best 301 games for the Caps but served as a backup during the final two weeks of the season and the playoffs.

He signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal plus performance bonuses with Tampa Bay. Kolzig will be reunited with former roommate Jeff Halpern and should compete for playing time with Mike Smith. With a new ownership group in charge, Tampa Bay has shelled out just more than $49 million in contracts to six players in the past two days.

“I am excited for him and his family,” Caps goaltender Brent Johnson said. “I think everyone will think it is awkward to see him in a different jersey. He’s always been in the red, white and blue or the black and gold. … Hopefully I get a chance to play against him this year. That would be great. Maybe we can get in a brawl or something. No, I am just kidding. I am really happy for him.”

McPhee’s first move of the day - signing Green - could prove vital to the franchise’s long-term health.

The 22-year-old, who had been just a few hours away from hitting the market as a restricted free agent, led all NHL defensemen with 18 goals last season and finished eighth with 56 points. Green, now under contract through 2011-12, will have one more year as an RFA before becoming eligible for unrestricted free agency.

McPhee said Tuesday owner Ted Leonsis has given him the authority to spend up to the salary cap (set at $56.7 million this season) if necessary. He also said Brian Pothier (concussion) has placed on long-term injured reserve, so his $2.5 million salary will not count against the team’s cap this season if he can’t return to the lineup because of post-concussion complications.

That means the Caps could have a little more than $9.5 million left under the cap depending on who makes the team out of training camp with RFAs Brooks Laich, Shaone Morrisonn and Boyd Gordon - and possibly unrestricted free agent Sergei Fedorov - still to sign.

“We’ve said that when these kids come of age and it is time to renew them, we will,” McPhee said. “We’ll keep the team intact and spend what we need to spend to do it.”