Washington Capitals Off-Season Preview

By Jeff Charlesworth
The Capitals have already had a busy off-season, but the biggest moves are yet to come. Many of the changes so far have affected the minor league system, leaving the NHL roster intact. However, with six big-name Restricted Free Agents and the potential for some blockbuster trades very soon – the Caps could have a different look for 2000-01.

As with the rest of the league, the Capitals had to sign their 1998 draft picks by June 1st or lose the rights to them. George McPhee got things started early by signing collegiate defenseman Michael Farrell in March. Then, right at the deadline, the Caps came to terms with Krys Barch, Nathan Forster and Rastislav Stana. They are all expected to play minor pro next season, and the Caps have high hopes for all of them. This meant that the remaining 1998 draft picks: Goaltender Jomar Cruz, Forwards Blake Evans and Todd Hornung re-entered the 2000 draft. None of them were selected, and they will look for Free Agent deals during the summer.

At the same time, the Caps made a deal with Anaheim to acquire one of their 1998 picks: Defenseman Stephen Peat. He will be given a chance to earn a spot in the NHL, but will probably start the season in Portland (AHL). Later in June, during the Expansion Draft, the Capitals got lucky as they didn’t lose anyone that figured into their long-term plans. Forward Barrie Moore was selected by Columbus, and Russian defensive prospect Oleg Orekhovsky was picked up by Minnesota. Those selections were surprising, as neither of them are signed for the upcoming season and are not expected to make an impact at the NHL level.

At the Entry Draft, the Caps decided to go for quality over quantity – trading up to select specific players. They also traded away winger Miika Elomo to Calgary for a draft pick – even though many considered him ready to play in the NHL next season. Of the six selections made on draft day, three are ready to turn pro immediately. Forward Matt Pettinger, Defensemen Bjorn Nord and Ryan VanBuskirk are all older than the typical draftees, and should make an impact right away.

The NHL’s Free Agent season began July 1st, but the Caps locked up three of their Unrestricted Free Agents just before then. Forwards Joe Murphy and Joe Sacco, and Goaltender Craig Billington all signed before July 1st, passing up a chance to test the open market. Washington also picked up the options on Forwards Ulf Dahlen and Terry Yake, as well as re-signing minor league defenseman Patrick Boileau.

Washington has ten Restricted Free Agents, but they all are expected to re-sign eventually. The Capitals have the right to match any offer given to these players and will receive compensation if they sign with another team. Forwards Jan Bulis, Matt Herr, Andrei Nikolishin, Mike Peluso, Jason Shmyr and Chris Simon, as well as Defensemen Nolan Baumgartner, Sergei Gonchar, Ken Klee and Brendan Witt are now free to negotiate with all 30 NHL clubs. Herr, Peluso, Shmyr and Baumgartner are all minor league players, therefore will probably sign quickly. Other teams would be reluctant to give up compensation for a player that may not make the NHL next season. All six of the others will be looking for big raises, and negotiations may extend well into training camp.

The Caps have seven Unrestricted Free Agents, and they could all end up elsewhere next season. Forwards Trevor Halverson, Jim McKenzie, Michal Pivonka and Jeff Toms, Defensemen Steve Poapst and Rob Zettler, as well as Goaltender Martin Brochu can now sign anywhere they want. Brochu will receive the most attention from other teams, possibly as a back-up for the upcoming season. Pivonka may also get some offers – as he is a valuable veteran centre who can still contribute. The only one of the seven that is expected to get serious consideration from Washington is Zettler – who played well last season when the Caps called on him.

With all those players coming and going, the Capitals still have some big trades on the horizon. Star forward Peter Bondra has asked to be dealt, and George McPhee will attempt to do just that. Expect Bondra to end up in the Western Conference – with Dallas and San Jose reportedly among the teams showing interest. Also on the list of possible departures are veteran defensemen Dimitri Mironov and Joe Reekie. Both blueliners were starters last season, but the Caps are looking to clear room for Alexei Tezikov and Bjorn Nord. Trading away Mironov and Reekie will not only make the defense corps younger, but at the same time, the Caps will save some money that would be spent on the RFAs.

Although Washington has made a few moves already, the face of the NHL roster has not changed. The trades that are coming soon will be the real mark of the off-season. The Capitals have never been known to make sweeping changes during the summer, but the players may have forced their hand this time. Along with the above-mentioned trade possibilities, do not be surprised if one or more of the Restricted Free Agents are dealt as well. The system can support these losses, as there are several young players ready to step in if given the chance.