- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

While the Washington Capitals may do some bargain shopping once free agent season begins Wednesday, the long-term health of the franchise is more dependent on the contract situations of Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin.

Because of a lack of salary cap room, general manager George McPhee doesn’t expect to be involved in the bidding for the high-priced talent set to hit the open market. The cap is set at $56.8 million for next season, but the Caps can go up to 10 percent past the ceiling during the offseason.

“We’ll be prudent tomorrow and see if there is anything that makes sense for our club, and if there is we’ll be involved and try to sign somebody,” McPhee said. “If it doesn’t make sense, we’re not going to do anything. No deal is better than a bad deal.”

Both Backstrom and Semin have one year remaining on their contracts and would become restricted free agents 12 months from now. Wednesday is the first day the Caps officially can offer them extensions.

Agents for both players said they have had preliminary discussions with the Caps’ brass but nothing is imminent. The 21-year-old Backstrom would remain a restricted free agent for four more seasons, while the 25-year-old Semin would have one more year left under restricted status.

“We’ve chatted briefly, and we’re going to continue discussing it. It has been very preliminary,” said Marc Levine, who represents Backstrom and 2009 first-round pick Marcus Johansson. “With something like this, you have to take a lot of variables. You don’t know if it is going to take five minutes or five months. It is not a rushed negotiation. It is not going to be a quickie. I’m not saying it is going to be long — you just don’t have a timetable.”

Added Semin’s agent, Mark Gandler: “We’ve had preliminary discussions. I think it will continue probably later in the summer. There is no pressure on either side to do anything. I think the next couple of weeks is the best time for the team to settle with [unrestricted] free agents and see where they are going. Once their team is set they can talk to guys about extensions.”

After only two years in the league, Backstrom is one of the top centers in the Eastern Conference, and if he continues to improve next season, he could command three times his $2.4 million salary last season.

While Backstrom is an essential part of Washington’s plans, it is hard to peg where Semin fits. He is perhaps one of the most talented players in the league, and if he puts together a season of full health and effort, he could challenge his buddy Alex Ovechkin for the goal-scoring crown.

With Semin on the second line, the Caps offer unique matchup problems, but the left wing is scheduled to make $5 million this coming season and likely will look for a raise. Can the Caps afford to keep him, especially if the salary cap were to fall as many are predicting for the 2010-11 campaign?

“The only thing I’d like to say is we had a very good conversation and both sides want the same thing. Eventually it will work out,” Gandler said. “They want to extend him, and that sounds good to us.”

If the Caps make any moves Wednesday, McPhee said he expects to target a forward. Washington has lost a pair of top-six forwards, veterans Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, to the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. A veteran could help upgrade the defense corps, but the Caps have nine guys at that position who played at least 26 NHL games last season and top prospect John Carlson in the mix as well.

“Well, at the forward position, if we could add some more depth or talent we would; defense we’re fine, and goaltending we’re fine,” McPhee said. “We have enough internally to be a good team, a good playoff team — but if there is something that makes us really good, we’ll be involved in it. Otherwise, we will just go with what we have.”

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