George McPhee saw the landscape of unrestricted free agency and the dangers it entailed. It was a players market, with not a lot of talent available and plenty of teams with money to throw around.
The Washington Capitals were one of those teams with room to maneuver underneath the salary cap, but they spent just $2.2 million in signing new players expected to play in the NHL next season, less than half of what 40-year-old Jaromir Jagr landed on a one-year contract with the Dallas Stars.
Most recently, Wojtek Wolski signed for $600,000, a cut of $2.2 million from what he made last year.
"We just thought in this situation that that kind of talent and that kind of upside to come in and make this kind of commitment without a lot of risk to us, we like the move and hope it pays off for him and for us," McPhee said.
That was the case with every move for the Caps, who made a concerted effort to take minimal risks this summer, in the trade market and free agency. No new additions are guaranteed to be around beyond 2012-13.
"We don't know what the CBA is going to look like going forward. And we don't know these players as well as we know our own players," McPhee said. "So why don't we take a look for a year and if it works out we can re-sign them. But they're nice pieces. They fit in pretty well with us, and obviously team construction is always important."
The new pieces are Wolski, center Mike Ribeiro, acquired at the draft for a second-rounder and Cody Eakin, right wing Joey Crabb, signed for $950,000, and defenseman Jack Hillen, signed for $650,000.
Wolski is the perfect example of a let's-see approach. McPhee admitted he's often "seduced by talent," something the 26-year-old has plenty of.
"Very talented guy, and George said 'Look, we're willing to give you an opportunity. You got a chance to play with some really good hockey players to resurrect yourself.' He was great about it," coach Adam Oates said. " And I'm excited because he's a talented player that if he plays good hockey will really help us."
Ribeiro should, too. The 32-year-old center figured after four years without a playoff appearance that the Dallas Stars would "trade the top salary or the top player." They did that, with Ribeiro and his $5 million cap hit coming to Washington.
Even that's not much of a risk.
There's one year left on his contract, and his presence should allow other forwards to slide into more natural roles and relieve pressure from Nicklas Backstrom.
"It's nice to have a couple of playmakers there with Backstrom and Ribeiro. We have flexibility now: You can move Brooks [Laich] in and out, center or wing. [Marcus] Johansson center or wing and Matty Perreault, [Jay] Beagle center or wing," McPhee said. "I like having that flexibility depending on how your team is playing, or who you're playing against you can match lineups with other people. Ribeiro brings us some real good playmaking and hockey sense."
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Oates watching, given that he produced a 92-point season at the age of 33 as a playmaking center.
But as a coach, McPhee pointed to Oates' "upside," and this is his first job as a head coach at any level. Given that even with a keen hockey IQ he might need time to develop his skills behind the bench, not risking a lot next year makes even more sense.
Still, don't expect even the players signed on for one season to lower expectations of winning.
"Obviously, it's a team with a lot of skill and a lot of talent and I'm here to create, I'm a guy that likes to create so it's nice to have to guys who can put the puck in the net," Ribeiro said. "At the end of the day, every year this team is among the top five [favorites] for winning the Cup, but there's always a missing piece or two. So hopefully I can be that piece that helps this team go farther in the playoffs and hopefully win a Cup."
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