"Ideally, you want to avoid free agents because they're always more expensive and longer-term than you want. You're better off looking for the bargains." - Capitals GM George McPhee
Since George McPhee took over as general manager of the Caps back in June of 1997, he's dipped his toe into the free agent pool a few times and even made a splash or two. But he has tended to be rather cautious, a conservatism likely borne of equal parts personal philosophy, ownership (current and previous) influence, and simple supply and demand.
Of course, there's another factor that makes
anyone other than Glen Sather most sane general managers hesitate before pulling the trigger on a headline-grabbing, merchandise-selling deal: fear.
Like any GM with a decade-plus under his belt, GMGM has been burned before in free agency. For example, with just over a year on the job, McPhee opened up the team's check book and signed Dmitri Mironov. Coming off 52- and 43-point seasons, the big Russian blueliner put up 46 points for Washington... over the course of his four-year/$11.5-million deal (injuries sidelined Mironov for the last year-and-a-half of the contract, but even before the back injury, Dmitri was on the express train to Bustville). For a team of whom much is expected, the next big free agent McPhee signs may be the last... or the one who wins him a Cup. National Hockey League General Manager - not for the faint of heart.
To see why he may be a bit gun shy, here's a look at the ten times GMGM has spent more than $1 million (annually) to sign a UFA with previous NHL experience and how those deals turned out (I believe this is a complete list of such signings, but some historical data is tough to find and/or trust):
See any "game changers" there? Me neither. Lang was very good, but became more valuable in trade as the team around him tanked, Dahlen was outstanding in his role, and the rest of the results are either still pending, unimpressive, or flat-out awful. McPhee, then, is speaking from experience when he says:
"[Big money deals or long-term deals] just haven't worked around the league. For the last several years, there have been lots of players that have signed big money deals and you'd be hard pressed to find a handful that were any good. It seems that six months after those deals are signed, GMs are trying to move that same guy."
And by "that same guy" he means Michael Nylander.
On the other hand, McPhee (who, incidentally, signed his first NHL contract 27 years ago today... as a free agent) has found some relative gems - guys who could play the role for which they were acquired, at least - in much smaller summertime deals. Granted, these are low-risk/medium-reward deals, unlike some of the more high-risk/high-reward contracts above, but any time you can sign a Matt Bradley or a David Steckel for pennies over the League minimum and, four years later, they're integral parts of your team, it's worth noting. Sometimes these "smaller free agent signings" turn out to be a bit more than that.
In the current salary-capped NHL, of course, it's all the more important to limit the number of bad contracts on the books (just look at the perennial contenders - not much dead weight there), and the worst contracts tend to be those that have been inflated (in dollars and/or years) by market pressures. And yet despite the relatively long odds on landing a big fish who is actually worth his contract, fans clamor for these deals, whether their teams were one win from the Cup or the draft lottery, because they represent instant hope. Closer to home, even when we read "We have enough [forwards] internally, we believe, to be a good team, a playoff team," and know it to be true, it feels strangely familiar to the Abe Pollin era Caps - cautious so as to stay competitive year-in and year-out, but always that proverbial "one player away."
But the temptation is there. Every summer. And every summer, someone gives in. A lot of someones, in fact. And not many of them win Cups. So you can believe it when McPhee says, "Don't be surprised if we sit this one out," and even agree with it when they do, but that doesn't mean that, in the arms race that the Eastern Conference has become, you can't be disappointed when everyone else gets better and the Caps get a winger for Hershey. At some point, it's going to be time to get that "one player." With all the chips this team has, at some point - be it this summer, at the trade deadline or some other time in the not-too-distant future - it's going to be time to take the risk and go all-in. And if nothing happens today, that's all the more flexibility the team has to make the right deal - a better deal - in the future.