HARRIS: Vincent Lecavalier, Matt Hendricks should top Capitals’ shopping list

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Christmas in July parties are pretty popular in the summer. People put on Santa hats with their shorts and summer shirts and celebrate being halfway to the holiday.

The NHL does something similar. It is called free agency and hockey fans everywhere get all excited about the “presents” their team is about to receive. Free agency in the NHL opens Friday and, for some reason, there always seems to be a flurry of activity on the first day.

Though Capitals general manager George McPhee hasn’t called seeking advice, we’re going to offer some anyway with the guarantee that it will be worth every penny spent.

1. Go all in on Vincent Lecavalier, the lifelong Tampa Bay Lightning stalwart who was released by the team last week.

2. Bring back Matt Hendricks.

They are two moves on opposite ends of the star power spectrum. The line for Lecavalier will be long, with good reason. It will be a “splash” signing. The return of Hendricks may go unnoticed by all but the diehard fans. It may be as important as any big move the Caps might make.

Lecavalier is 33, but you figure he has some good years left. Maybe those years won’t be as productive points-wise as he had earlier in his career, but he’s still an extremely talented player who offers more than points. He offers a gravitas of sorts, the respect that comes with being one of the game’s best players for a very long time. If he couldn’t play anymore, that sort of intangible wouldn’t be worth a whole lot. Combine it with the fact that he can still play and he becomes the crown jewel of this free agent class.

Drafted No. 1 overall in 1998, Lecavalier has been a fixture for Tampa Bay since he was 18 years old. Beyond that rookie year and the lockout-shortened 2013 season, he’s had at least 20 goals every year and he’s had six seasons with at least 40 assists.

His plus/minus numbers aren’t that great, at minus-117 for his career. That may be a function of his team rather than his ability, though it is a bit of a red flag on his otherwise sterling resume. When Tampa Bay won the Cup in 2004, he was plus-24 in a season when he had 32 goals and 34 assists.

That’s right, he’s hoisted the Cup. He knows what it takes. Troy Brouwer is the only current Cap who has taken a drink from the Stanley Cup. A few more of those won’t hurt.

Lecavalier won’t come cheap. Think $5 million or so per for 4-5 years, maybe more and maybe longer. As long as it isn’t some absurd figure, the Caps need to dive in hard. Signing him would almost certainly mean the Caps won’t re-sign Mike Ribeiro, who is looking for a similar contract. If you can only have one, which player would you rather have? Is there really any question? The Caps need to do everything they can to make it happen.

As for Hendricks, the numbers don’t look nearly as good as those of Lecavalier. The contract numbers won’t look as big, either. Hendricks, who made $850,000 last season, will have a few other suitors and probably should be able to command about $2 million a year for three years or so. For the Caps, it would be money well spent.

The 32-year-old has played about a quarter of the games in the NHL as Lecavalier and he’s never been one to fill up the net. His career high in goals is nine, which he’s done twice. He’s had nine total the past two seasons. His high in assists is 16, set in 2010-11. He hasn’t had double figures in assists in any other season.

So what makes a guy who is essentially a nonscorer so essential? He brings an element of toughness all good teams need. Every team has its share of stars. The really good teams have better players who aren’t stars than the bad teams. Hendricks is a difference-maker on that second tier of players. He’ll fight. Anyone. He’ll charge into the corner for a puck without a lot of concern about what happens to him in there. He’s an excellent locker room presence who has earned the respect of his teammates.

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