Every July the NHL shifts from its sleepy, post-Cup haze into what is widely known as the "Silly Season" - so dubbed because of the temporary insanity some teams seem to go through once July 1 rolls around. Free agents go on the market and within minutes we see multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts being tossed around at alarming speed, with names both expected and unexpected drawing the big money and bigger bidding wars.
The silliness isn't limited to the League's general managers, though. It infects the fans, makes them experience their own passing insanity as they wait for their team to make that one big move that will insure them the Cup (even though it rarely does).
Patience is a characteristic most fans do not readily possess - especially during the long summer, when discussion and conjecture is all we have. It's understandable for frustration to set in when teams all around us appear to be improving their rosters while the Capitals are content to merely watch from the sidelines. Some are even ready to send George McPhee packing if he doesn't do something soon; his "inaction" signaling to these fans that he has no clue what's wrong with this team or how to fix it. We don't see action so we assume McPhee is blind to the needs of the team and therefore useless.
But McPhee might end up being one of the smarter GMs this year for ultimately doing nothing.
For one thing, there is the fact that this UFA class is one of the weaker ones in recent history. We've debated the possibility of guys like Matthew Lombardi, Saku Koivu or Matt Cullen anchoring our second line, of guys like Anton Volchenkov or Zbynek Michalek holding down the fort on the blue line, and all are good players in their own right. The problem is the lack of elite talent available this year has elevated these players (and others like them) to a status that they simply don't deserve, with paychecks and contract lengths to match. Lombardi is not the next Nicklas Backstrom. Paul Martin is not Nicklas Lidstrom. Good but not great, worth a look but not worth the hefty multi-year contracts many of them are receiving.
Even if there was a good fit, McPhee is bidding against teams with more cap space and/or more desperation, looking for slight upgrades while other teams seek to fill gaping holes. The teams that have made the biggest splashes often have the biggest needs, and for many the biggest need is on defense. Losing Sergei Gonchar weakened a Pittsburgh defense that still hadn't recovered from losing Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, so they went out and got Martin and Michalek. The Senators were going to lose Volchenkov so they targeted Gonchar; the Devils lost Martin so they picked up Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder.
All of them made these moves - and most overpaid to do so - because they had no other options.
They don't have guys like Marcus Johansson and John Carlson waiting in the wings; they don't have the luxury of a Mathieu Perreault or a Karl Alzner or a Michal Neuvirth, a new wave of talent that has grown up in their system and is ready to make the jump to the NHL. For them, there are no other options. The Caps have options. They are in an enviable position where they can afford to be patient, to make the right move instead of making a move right now.
Obviously that's not to suggest there aren't areas of concern, but every team has them - and just because the Caps haven't addressed them yet doesn't mean they won't. More importantly they, unlike other teams, have maintained flexibility to address them. Could the team use an upgrade on defense? Perhaps, but even without it they're likely going to have at least one guy in a third-pair role with the talent to be in the top-four on any other team. Could the team use another second-line center? Perhaps, but there's no guarantee that Johansson or Perreault aren't perfectly capable of filling that role, and if they're not the team has the flexibility to go out and find someone else by the trade deadline.
Next summer, Brooks Laich, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Matt Bradley and others will be free agents; Karl Alzner, Mathieu Perreault, Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov will be restricted free agents. Depending upon the outcome of the next few weeks of negotiations and arbitration, Jeff Schultz, Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann could be free agents again next summer as well. And looking two summers ahead, they've got Mike Green and John Carlson to worry about.
Because of that, flexibility is key; not handing out huge chunks of money and long-term deals, particularly on guys whose talent does not match what we already have, is key. Had the Caps committed six years to Volchenkov, for example, they would have created a situation where they'd ultimately have to move one of the young defensemen or a goalie - and two years of Volchenkov when the Caps are good isn't worth potentially losing ten years of Alzner or Carlson.
This team as it is built right now might win a Cup, they might not - even the best teams on paper often don't come away with the prize, though, and it's better to have a fighting chance for years to come than to blow the bank account and future cap space on players who ultimately are not worth it.
Above all else, however, is the fact that it's only the first week of July. The season doesn't start July 1 and end July 2, the Cup isn't handed out in August and there is plenty of time - there's time to let the "unproven" guys prove themselves, to see what we have and what we don't have, and turn this team into a true contender...by playing it smart.