Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Washington Capitals turned to a familiar face yesterday as they continue to reshape their roster via free agency.

One day after the Caps added defenseman Tom Poti and forward Viktor Kozlov, they signed center Michael Nylander to a four-year contract worth $19.5 million, according to a source close to the team.

Nylander, who turns 35 in October, will earn $5.5 million the first three years and $3 million in the final season, the source said. The deal will cost the Caps $4.875 million a season (the average cost of the contract) against the salary cap.

“I think we structured the contract well. I like the way it was done,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “We know this player well. He is a very driven guy who has a lot left to prove in this league in his mind. He reminds me of Adam Oates as being a guy who is really underrated in this league, and you don’t know how good he is until you have him.”

Nylander had career highs in goals (26) and points (83) this past season while centering Jaromir Jagr’s line for the New York Rangers. He had six goals and 13 points in 10 playoff games.

A native of Stockholm, Sweden, Nylander could prove to be a valuable mentor for top prospect Nicklas Backstrom, who will make his Caps debut this season.

Nylander has played with Washington before, teaming with Jagr for a little more than one season before the lockout. Nylander had 17 goals and 56 points during the 2002-03 season, which was the last time the Caps made the playoffs.

“He generates things offensively, and he always seems to have the puck. He’s a real puck possession guy, and if you always have the puck you’re not going to get scored on,” McPhee said.

Nylander missed much of the 2003-04 season because of a broken leg before being traded to Boston for a 2005 fourth-round pick (defenseman Patrick McNeil) and a 2006 second-round pick (right wing Francois Bouchard).

An Edmonton radio station reported early yesterday Nylander would sign with the Oilers, but that proved to be false.

“It sounds like he had a difficult time with the decision-making process,” McPhee said. “There was a lot of interest from a lot of clubs. Trying to make a decision that quickly with several clubs, I can’t imagine how difficult that is. You’re deciding where you are going for the next three-to-four years, and you’ve got to decide fast.”

If the Caps do not add another forward, the top six forwards are likely to be Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin on the left side, Nylander and Backstrom down the middle and Kozlov and captain Chris Clark on the right side.

Should one of the team’s young forwards (Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann or a dark horse like Bouchard) excel during training camp or if the organization adds another quality forward, it is possible Clark would shift to the checking line with Boyd Gordon and Matt Pettinger.

It is a role coach Glen Hanlon started to groom Clark for late last season after he returned from a concussion. If Backstrom proves he’s not ready for a scoring line role, Kozlov could shift over to fill that spot.

“The way you construct a team is really important,” McPhee said. “We needed a play-making center. We think different things could happen here. Does Nylander play with Ovechkin or Semin? Who does Backstrom play with? Does Kozlov fit better with one of those two guys? At least now we have some options.”

Meanwhile, it appears center Alexei Yashin no longer is an option. His agent, Mark Gandler, said he talked to the Caps before the start of free agency Sunday, but that as of yesterday afternoon Washington had not called about Yashin in two days. Yashin centered a line with Ovechkin and Kozlov during the 2006 Olympics, but Nylander’s signing makes it unlikely the Caps will place that call.

“I can only say if they call me they are interested, and they haven’t called,” said Gandler, who also represents Alexander Semin. He said between five and seven teams had contacted him about Yashin. “With Alexei it’s not all about the price. The teams want to talk to him, and Alexei wants to talk to the teams. It is about finding the right fit.”

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