- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009

Last summer, George McPhee did what he could to keep his Washington Capitals team from the previous season together.

Several players lobbied Friday for the team to return intact again next season, but Washington’s loss to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals - not to mention the Caps’ struggles with a mediocre New York Rangers club in the quarterfinals - showed areas where McPhee could try to tweak the roster.

“This team doesn’t need radical changes,” he said. “We’ve got a real good team and a real good coach. The objective is to keep progressing and keep getting better. If we can be a better regular-season team next year and a better playoff team, then maybe we are competing for the Cup.”

The foundation for the Caps to be successful for many years is in place, but McPhee might have a little more work to do in the coming weeks and months to keep his franchise progressing. Making the leap from a playoff team to one of several Stanley Cup contenders is one thing, but becoming one of those four teams with the Finals in sight can be a tougher leap to take.

“I’d like to just keep improving overall,” McPhee said. “We thought just keeping this team together last year that there would be improvement, as everyone had a little more experience, and there was.”

Any move McPhee makes this offseason will have to be done with not only this coming year’s salary cap in mind (which is expected to be similar to the $56.7 million from 2008-09), but also the following season. Given the poor economy, fear of the cap dropping for 2010-11 is rampant, so expect teams to be hesitant about handing out long-term contracts.

The Caps are also going to face similar salary cap restraints next season if McPhee tries to keep the team intact. Washington was snug against the salary ceiling this year, and that was with Brian Pothier and his $2.5 million salary on long-term injury reserve for nearly all of the season.

With all this in mind, here are some things that might be on McPhee’s summer to-do list:

• Sign Nicklas Backstrom and/or Alexander Semin to long-term deals

Last summer, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a bunch of free agents, but they also had two core guys - Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury - who were a year away from free agency. Penguins general manager Ray Shero let some of his free agents go, but he also locked up Malkin and Fleury, his biggest moves of the offseason.

Backstrom should be the team’s top priority once the Caps can negotiate a new deal with him July 1. The longer they wait, the more his price tag will go up. He’s the real deal, and the longer they can keep him paired with Alex Ovechkin, the better.

The situation with Semin might be different. He remains a talented enigma, and if the cap does take a nose dive after next season, he might price himself out of the team’s long-term plans.

“Is it best to do a long-term deal now, or should we wait a year and then do long-term deals based on what the cap will be?” McPhee said.

• Add a veteran forward with grit and leadership abilities

Brooks Laich is great, and so would be a healthy Chris Clark. This team could use another Laich or two. Caps fans had a good view of what Bill Guerin added to the Penguins, and someone like him or Mike Knuble (or specifically Guerin, since he’s a free agent) would look nice playing alongside Ovechkin or Semin.

• Find a No. 2 center

The Caps paid two guys No. 2 center-type money this season, and both Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander could be on the roster in October. But Fedorov would fit better on the third line, and who knows what Nylander can offer.

McPhee did mention Laich as maybe the best in-house candidate for the job. If Fedorov does come back, the team could start with Laich in that spot, then use No. 91 as the fill-in when coach Bruce Boudreau needs to put Laich’s versatility to use.

“I would love to have the opportunity,” Laich said. “It would be a bigger role, an expanded role. I still consider myself a centerman even though the last couple years I’ve played mostly wing. I grew up as a center. I would love playing the middle of the ice and a chance to play with scoring wingers.”

• Find some salary cap relief

The Caps need more flexibility, both to possibly add players this offseason and at the trade deadline next year. Bringing back Fedorov and/or Viktor Kozlov is unlikely to create much room, so if McPhee wanted to pursue a big-name veteran either via trade (most likely) or free agency, the only way that can happen is if the Caps lose a high-priced player or two.

This would involve finding a trading partner with interest in Nylander or goalie Jose Theodore. The Caps wouldn’t expect much back for either player, and taking back someone else’s bad contract doesn’t solve the problem. Moving Nylander’s contract could be next to impossible, but there could be a market for Theodore.

• Add a veteran defenseman

This could be higher, but the Caps do have great depth, and McPhee might be willing to wait on Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Still, if someone such as Chris Pronger is available via trade, then the Caps should be one of the first teams to make an offer. Checking on the contract demands of such players as Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek might also be worth doing.

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