Usually, the trade deadline in February is when NHL general managers take a look at their teams and make moves to prepare for the playoffs. But after a few years of failure in April and May, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee got a head start.
Over the weekend, McPhee signed four players in free agency - all with his sights set on next spring. For a franchise with plenty of regular-season banners hanging in a seemingly perpetually sold-out Verizon Center, July 1 (and beyond) has become a time to “complete” the roster to win when it matters most.
On Friday, the Caps signed defenseman Roman Hamrlik, right wing Joel Ward and center Jeff Halpern to fill voids left by departures and to address some weaknesses.
“All the holes are filled,” McPhee said then. “I think we have a good, strong team.”
Saturday evening brought a more surprising move, as the Caps inked the best goaltender on the market, Tomas Vokoun, to a one-year deal worth just $1.5 million.
It was an unexpected move, given the apparent desire to stick with Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby in net. But like everything else, it showed McPhee won’t play it safe with a chance to potentially make next year’s Caps better prepared for playoff hockey than previous incarnations.
“Ownership, management, coaches, players - we’re all expected to do as best we can. Sometimes, things go well and go your way, and sometimes, they don’t,” McPhee said during a conference call Sunday. “We’re all trying here, and we’re all committed here. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Vokoun replaces Semyon Varlamov, whom the Caps traded to the Colorado Avalanche on Friday for a first- and second-round pick. The 35-year-old is just 3-8 in the playoffs, but has spent his career on mostly middling to bottom-feeding teams in Nashville and Florida.
His agent, Michael Deutsch, said Vokoun has the same goal as the Caps - to win the Stanley Cup.
“I never had a chance to play for a team like this,” Vokoun said. “I know I’m going to have fun. I’ve been on winning teams before, but nothing like Washington.”
Before signing Vokoun, McPhee was convinced Friday he was done making moves with Hamrlik (two years, $7 million), Ward (four years, $12 million) and Halpern (one year, $825,000) in the fold.
“We just wanted good, experienced players - committed players, who do bring leadership,” McPhee said. “We’re really pleased. We didn’t think we’d get all three.”
In Hamrlik, the Caps get a 37-year-old defenseman with offensive abilities (five goals and 29 assists last season with Montreal). Time will tell whether he’s a fit with Mike Green on the blue line as McPhee hopes, but the veteran understands his role as a puck-moving player who can eat up minutes.
“I’m not getting any younger, and I really like that team,” Hamrlik said on a conference call Saturday. “I think I’m getting to that age when I’m 37, and I was choosing Capitals [to] hopefully go deep in the playoffs and win the Cup one day.”
Ward got paid some big bucks largely because of what he did in the playoffs with the Nashville Predators a few months ago - seven goals and six assists in 12 games. Much like fellow off-season acquisition Troy Brouwer, the 30-year-old Ward brings some more grit to a team that bid farewell to Boyd Gordon (two years, $2.65 million with Phoenix) and Matt Bradley (two years with Florida).
With McPhee saying he’d rather have a guy score 10 to 15 goals in the regular season and then deliver in the playoffs, than a bigger-production guy who can’t do it in the postseason, Ward fits the bill.
“As playoff time comes around, you get excited,” Ward said. “You play 82 games and with all the travel sometimes you’re a little fatigued, but then you got to find another notch and pick it up a little.”
The 35-year-old Halpern has never won a playoff series, including his six previous seasons with the Capitals. But Washington’s captain from the 2005-06 season is also a Potomac native, and his agent, Mike Liut, said this was a chance for Halpern to come home.
And all four signees think it’s a chance to win it all.
“I love playoff hockey, and I think it’s such a fun time of year,” Ward said. “I think everyone thrives on it. You want to try to hoist the Stanley Cup, and that’s what I’m going to try to do and hopefully bring that to Washington.”