- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

The Washington Capitals apparently have suffered their first casualties from free agency, losing a pair of grinding, agitating forwards.

Jeff Halpern, the first Montgomery County native to make it to the NHL, is expected to join the Dallas Stars today while right wing Brian Willsie has signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Halpern is about to sign a four-year contract which reportedly will pay him $2 million a year, well above what the Caps were believed to be offering. Halpern could not be reached for comment and there was no way to independently verify those figures.

Losing Halpern would mean Washington will have to select a new captain. Halpern had served in that position for this past season and also was the Caps’ player rep with the NHL Players Association.

The Caps will also have to replace a key player at center, especially on faceoffs. Halpern was Washington’s best player at winning draws, an important element in puck possession.

It was Halpern’s first chance to sell his services on the open market since the new CBA was signed a year ago this month. He became an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after he and the Caps had discussed a new contract on-and-off for months.

Washington first signed Halpern to a contract in 1999 when he graduated from Princeton. He was the first hometown player to make the team, having played at all the local levels and then spending a year playing Junior B hockey in Canada before enrolling at Princeton. Halpern, never drafted, was a free agent after college and chose the Caps over an offer from Philadelphia.

The Potomac native had practiced during the summer with Washington for years and joined the team for the 1999-2000 season, playing 79 games with 18 goals and 29 points. In six seasons with Washington, Halpern scored 87 goals and had 214 points in 438 games. He had four goals and nine points in 17 playoff games.

The new NHL rules that rewarded swift players did not help Halpern, nor did the effects of knee surgery in 2002, which he never seemed to fully recover from. He had 11 goals and 44 points last season as he shifted to a more defensive role.

Willsie had a career-high 19 goals last season and was the only Washington player to appear in all 82 games. The right wing also had career highs in assists with 22 and points with 41. The Caps obtained Willsie in the 2003 waiver draft when Colorado tried to sneak the forward into the minors.

“He is a very versatile player in that he can play both wing positions effectively and he brings a good deal of experience with him as well,” said Dean Lombardi, the new Kings general manager. Lombardi watched Willsie often last season as the chief pro scout for Philadelphia.

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