Another early playoff exit by the Washington Capitals has left their fans frustrated and questioning the club's direction.
With more than $58.6 million invested in 20 players for 2013-14, GM George McPhee only has around $5.6 million in cap space to re-sign key players and bolster his lineup.
Mike Ribeiro, Matt Hendricks, Wojtek Wolski and Tom Poti are unrestricted free agents this summer, while Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson are restricted free agents.
Wolski and Poti won't be back, and while re-signing Hendricks ($825,000), Alzner ($1.285 million) and Johansson ($900,000) won't be expensive, their raises would use up the remaining cap space.
Ribeiro's status is the biggest question. The 33-year-old center is willing to re-sign, but prefers a four or five year deal. Ribeiro was reportedly seeking $5 million per season, but CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley claimed he might accept a lower cap hit for a longer term.
Whatever amount Ribeiro accepts, it wouldn't leave enough to re-sign Hendricks, Alzner and Johansson. Given the lack of depth in this summer's free agent market, Ribeiro shouldn't have much difficulty finding a long-term deal if the Capitals don’t re-sign him.
Should Ribeiro depart, the best replacement option is Florida's Stephen Weiss, but he could command far more on the open market than the Capitals could afford and hasn't ruled out re-signing with the Panthers.
Other options are ageing (Patrick Elias, Matt Cullen, Saku Koivu), injury-prone (Andy McDonald) or past their prime (Nik Antropov, Derek Roy, Scott Gomez).
Gormley suggested freeing up cap space via trade – moving either defenseman Jeff Schultz ($2.75 million) or goaltender Michal Neuvirth ($2.5 million) – or dumping Martin Erat's $4.5 million annual cap hit via compliance buyout.
Given the Capitals dealt promising prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville at the trade deadline to land Erat, buying out the winger would provide fodder for McPhee's critics. Still, as Gormley suggested, it may be necessary to free up sufficient cap space to re-sign Ribeiro (or sign a replacement) and leave enough cap space to re-sign other key free agents.
Even so, dumping Erat to retain Ribeiro would leave the Capitals with essentially the same team that struggled earlier this season and came up short once again to the New York Rangers in the playoffs. That won't be considered progress by frustrated Capitals fans.
They also can't look to promising prospect Evgeni Kuznetsov to replace Ribeiro, as the 21-year-old Russian is under KHL contract to the end of next season, with no intention of breaking the agreement.
The Washington Times' Mike Harris called upon McPhee to make “show some major guts” by making “a major trade” to land “another stud goal scorer” to match the skills of superstar Alex Ovechkin.
Harris acknowledged such a move was “easier said than done,” and didn’t offer up any suggested targets.
In today's salary cap world such a move isn't impossible, but it is very difficult to make the dollars fit, plus the Capitals lack a pool of tradeable assets to make such a move without hurting their overall depth.
If McPhee does make moves – especially if he buys out Erat – it could be to shore up his second line scoring depth, rather than pursuing another superstar forward.
Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).