- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 10, 2008

While the agent for goaltender Cristobal Huet said he had “exploratory talks” with Washington Capitals management about a contract at the end of the season, the two sides have not spoken recently.

Stephen Bartlett, Huet’s New York-based agent, said yesterday he has not talked with his client about his pending unrestricted free agency but expects to sit down with him in the coming days. Huet is now playing for France in the IIHF World Championships in Quebec City, but Bartlett expects more negotiations with the Caps after he talks to Huet.

“We will look at every team,” Bartlett said. “Washington has made it very clear by trading for him and playing him so much that they value his services. I don’t think there were any mixed messages there at all.”

Retaining Huet is one of the top priorities for the Caps this offseason. Olie Kolzig, the team’s starting goaltender and face of the franchise for a decade, said in yesterday’s Washington Post he will not consider returning to the organization that drafted him 19 years ago.

Kolzig, like Huet, also becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. A message left with his agent yesterday was not returned.

“If Olie is not going to be there, then we have to find somebody,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Cris played great for us last year, and we would love to have him back. Goaltending is a very important part of the game. I’m not a mind reader and I don’t have a crystal ball, but I feel things are going to work out. I am not worried about it. It is only May 9.

“I am confident [general manager] George [McPhee] will do everything he can to make the team better.”

The Caps acquired Huet from the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline in late February for a second-round pick in the 2009 draft. After splitting time with Kolzig at first, Huet started the final seven games of the regular season — all Caps’ victories to help Washington secure the Southeast Division title — and all seven games in a first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia.

The 32-year-old finished the regular season 11-2 with the Caps with a 1.63 goals against average and a .936 save percentage. He recently told a reporter from IIHF.com, “I don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait for July 1 to talk about it. But I would like to stay in Washington.”

Said Bartlett: “I don’t want to speak for him. I know he enjoyed his time in Washington — the team, the people. At this point I think it is still very positive. It was a very successful run. Cristobal really loved the fan support he received.”

The Caps surely would like to re-sign Huet before July 1 while they have exclusive negotiating rights, but keeping him off the free agent market could be tough. Though Huet will be 33 next season and has never played more than 52 games in a year, he is the top goaltender available in a market with little depth.

Beyond Huet and Kolzig, the only goalies who are pending unrestricted free agents with extensive experience as a No. 1 netminder are Colorado’s Jose Theodore and Detroit’s Dominik Hasek, who like Kolzig could consider retirement.

Nashville’s Dan Ellis is the only other UFA goalie who finished the season as a starter. There are a few other goalies — Pittsburgh’s Ty Conklin, Dallas’ Johan Holmqvist and Boston’s Alex Auld — who have starting experience and some success but likely not enough to be considered a long-term answer in net.

Huet made $2.75 million last season in the second year of a two-year, $5.5 million contract. He could easily double the annual money and the term on the open market.

“Anytime an athlete has a chance to entertain options from a number of teams — it is like buying one car without looking at any other cars,” Bartlett said. “We will weigh the pros and cons from every team.”

The Caps have Brent Johnson under contract for next season, and he played well at times in relief of Kolzig but did not at all after Huet’s arrival. They also have a pair of touted prospects at the position — 2006 first-round pick Simeon Varlamov and 2006 second-rounder Michal Neuvirth.

Neither of them has played professionally in North America and both are likely slated to start next season with Hershey in the American Hockey League or South Carolina in the ECHL.

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