In 1993 and ‘94, Brendan Witt walked out of training camp in contract disputes after being picked 11th overall in 1993 by the Washington Capitals. In 1995, he came within seconds of going back into the draft pool before he and the team came to terms.
Yesterday, it was a repeat of the old scene — but this time it was the Caps who were being stubborn.
Holding out until nearly the 3 p.m. trading deadline before getting what they wanted, the Caps sent the defenseman to Nashville for center Kris Beech and the Predators’ first round pick this June. The move reunites Witt with former Caps general manager David Poile and returns Beech, 25, to the team that drafted him seventh overall in 1999.
The team also claimed forward Rico Fata off waivers from Atlanta. Fata, 26, was drafted sixth overall by Calgary in 1998.
“The deal we did today was the best we could have done at any point this season,” Washington general manager George McPhee said. “We did very well. I’m very happy with our returns in relation to everything else that went on. We’ll sleep well tonight.”
The Caps also sent left wing Jeff Friesen to Anaheim for a second round pick in June. Washington had obtained Friesen, 29, during training camp from New Jersey for a third round pick.
The moves give the Capitals two first-round picks in the upcoming draft and three selections in the second round. McPhee said he was unsure if he would use the picks or trade them.
But all this may boil down to a potential problem for the team.
After refiguring the team’s salary structure based on yesterday’s deals, the club might be in violation of the new collective bargaining agreement by being well under the $21.5 million minimum salary requirement. However, it is not clear if other charges against payroll are involved that would push the figure above the league minimum. The maximum salary allowed is $39 million and the Caps are about $19 million under that.
Witt, 31, had asked during training camp to be traded to a contender and Nashville is certainly that. Witt played 626 games for the Caps in 10 NHL seasons, totaling 83 points, 1,035 penalty minutes and probably twice that many bruising hits. He served as team captain for one season.
Friesen was never a comfortable fit with the Caps. He seemed out of place until having abdominal surgery in December and missed 29 games but played better after he came back. Still, he had only three goals, far less than expected.
Acquiring Fata and Beech continues the Caps’ trend toward younger, faster but less expensive players as they try to rebuild. Both men went high in the draft but have not played up to what is expected from players chosen inside the top 10.
The Caps are Fata’s fifth team. Beech also has played for Pittsburgh (he was part of the Jaromir Jagr deal) and Nashville. Both will report directly to the Caps and will be in the lineup tonight against New Jersey.
Washington last night assigned defenseman Mike Green and centers Brooks Laich and Jakub Klepis to Hershey, opening up spots for the two new players.
McPhee said he plans to use the players now with the team to replace Witt for the remainder of the season. The team has six healthy defensemen on the roster plus Jamie Heward, who is injured but not expected to be out long.
“We’re going to play the young guys, that’s been the plan all along,” McPhee said. “We have to find out if some of these young guys can play. It’ll be great if they can elevate their play and made us better.”