Like every other team in the National Hockey League, the Washington Capitals enter the offseason with some important decisions to make in preparation for the 2011-12 campaign.
However, the Capitals also enter next season with arguably more pressure than any other team in the league after their fourth consecutive disappointing playoff exit.
First, the Capitals' management team will have the draft later this month, which is an opportunity to pick up talent for the future and possibly orchestrate a trade to bring help in for the present.
However, the Capitals' real opportunity to bolster their lineup for next season will come July 1, when unrestricted free agents hit the open market. While this year's crop of free agents isn't particularly deep in talent, there are still a slew of players who would help Washington, especially come playoff time.
With that in mind, here's a look at some of the players general manager George McPhee should be targeting in order to address the team's most glaring areas for improvement.
With the Capitals coming off their fourth straight early exit in the playoffs, the team needs to consider putting an emphasis on acquiring players with winning pedigrees.
Though this year's unrestricted free agent pool is relatively shallow, there are some low-risk, high-reward ventures for teams looking in the market for secondary scoring.
Considering the Capitals have had a nightmare of a time trying to put the puck in the net over the course of the last two postseasons, a proven playoff scorer like Ruslan Fedotenko would make sense for Washington.
No, he's not going to be a 25-goal man during the regular season, but he has a knack for scoring big goals in the postseason, as he's collected two Stanley Cups in the last seven years and played a key role on both championship teams.
In 2004, Fedotenko scored two goals in Game 7 of the finals to lift Tampa Bay to a 2-1 win over the Flames, forever etching his name in Playoff history.
Five years later, Fedotenko scored seven goals and 14 points as his Penguins hoisted the Cup, beating the Capitals along the way.
He'd be a bargain-bin type of signing, as the Capitals could probably get him for around $1.5 million on a one-year deal, which would make sense for both parties. The Capitals suffered through a terrible season by their standards offensively, and a guy like Fedotenko would be a decent addition on one of the Capitals' top three lines and second power play unit.
With little cap space and a couple of holes to fill on the top three lines, Fedotenko would fit in nicely with the Capitals' quick-strike offense.
As one half of the Washington Capitals' top defensive pair in 2010-11, it's critical that the team inks Karl Alzner to a deal before July 1.
Alzner, a restricted free agent, has matured immensely over the course of the last three seasons.
Last year, in his first full season, Alzner teamed up with rookie John Carlson to form one of the most formidable young pairings in the league.
While Carlson gains more notoriety due to his offensive abilities, Alzner is the perfect compliment because he's a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman. The 22-year-old British Columbia native is still progressing, and the Capitals can't afford to allow him to do so somewhere else.
Alzner also has the potential to be a leader down the road in Washington, as he captained Team Canada to a Gold Medal at the 2008 World Junior Championships. He's one of the top young defensive defensemen in the league, and on a team that's had its fair share of struggles in their own end, he's a building block for the present and future.
This may be the most difficult player on this list for the Capitals to sign because there's a reasonable chance that Ed Jovanovski will command a salary that's out of the Capitals' price range. However, with rumors swirling regarding trade possibilities involving high-priced players like sniper Alexander Semin, there's no telling what the Capitals' cap situation will be like on July 1.
Jovanovski would be a quality addition to Washington's defense corps for a couple of reasons.
First of all, he brings a physical presence that the Capitals lack on the back end, assuming pending-UFA Scott Hannan isn't retained.
In addition, while he hasn't won a Stanley Cup, he's been to the finals before and won a Gold Medal with Team Canada in 2002, so he's no stranger to big-game situations.
Jovanovski won't be making anywhere close to the $6.5 million he made last year as he's aging and his offensive production tailed off in 2010-11, so he could be able to fit into the Capitals' plans financially.
On a blue line that's stocked with young talent and offensive defenseman, he would be a calming veteran presence for a team that's clearly in need of some direction.
If the Capitals are able to swing a deal to open up some cap space, a two-year deal for a defenseman who will be turning 35 just before free agency opens wouldn't be out of the question, especially one with Jovanovski's pedigree.
He won't be counted upon to be a No. 1 defenseman, but he'd bring stability to a defense corps that desperately needs a defense-first rearguard. Unless the Capitals re-sign Hannan, look for George McPhee to try to acquire a physical presence like Jovanovski on the back end.
The Capitals currently have ten forwards under contract for next season, including Jay Beagle and D.J. King, who were both used sparingly in 2010-11.
Seeing as they'll have roughly $12 million in cap space entering the offseason, the Capitals have enough cash to pick up a top-nine winger to help fill the void created by departing forwards Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm and possibly Brooks Laich.
One option they'd be well-advised to consider is Blackhawks' pending unrestricted free agent Tomas Kopecky.
Kopecky is a product of the Detroit Red Wings' development system, meaning he's a solid two-way forward with high level skill and skating ability.
He's proven that he's capable of being a top three-line forward on a contending team, as he played a key role on the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup-winning team in 2010, and got another ring as a member of the Red Wings' squad in 2008.
This season, Kopecky notched a career-best 42 points, so he'll likely be in line to make more than the $1.2 million he made in 2010-11, come July 1. The Capitals could probably afford to give Kopecky $2.5 million a year, especially if they can't manage to keep Brooks Laich.
The addition of Kopecky would give the Capitals another solid two-way winger, whose best offensive numbers are likely ahead of him. More importantly, he's a proven winner, as he's picked up two Stanley Cups in five seasons.
For the last couple of seasons, the Capitals have struggled to find stability at the center position.
They've tried everything from veteran pivots like Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Morrison and Eric Belanger to young prospects like Mathieu Perreault.
Now, with a solid two-way centerman like Michael Handzus on the market, they may want to consider picking him up for a couple of reasons.
First of all, Handzus is the type of guy every team loves to have come playoff time.
He's a jack-of-all-trades, who would add a physical dimension that the Capitals so desperately need at the center position.
After posting just 30 points in 2010-11, Handzus will not be making the $4 million he has for each of the last four seasons. Instead, he'll be looking at something closer to $2.5 million a season, which could be an affordable price for the Capitals, depending on how much the cap increases.
He's a gritty player, and one that would fit nicely with wingers like Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr or Brooks Laich if he's retained and would provide the Capitals with three strong centerman.
Whether the Capitals decide to take a run at Handzus or not, one has to believe that they'll be bringing in a center before training camp opens in August.
While Brooks Laich isn't necessarily going to be a free agent come July 1, the Capitals don't appear close to reaching an agreement with the 27-year-old Saskatchewan native.
If he does hit the free agency market, Washington needs to do their best to coax Laich into returning to the team that gave him his chance to play in the NHL. Laich is a key member of the Capitals, and he's one of the few guys on the roster that's capable of playing in every situation.
Laich is the type of player coaches dream of because he will do anything it takes to help his team win hockey games. He kills penalties, sets up shop in front of the net on the power play and sacrifices his body to block shots whenever needed.
Offensively, Laich has become a consistent point producer over the course of the last four seasons. He's registered three 20-goal campaigns, along with two years with 53 or more points, solid numbers for a player who shifts between the second and third lines.
The biggest obstacle the Capitals face in signing Laich is the fact that they're short on cap space with a number of holes to fill. Laich could command upwards of $3.5 million, so in order to return to Washington, he'll almost definitely be leaving money on the table.
On a team with so many young players, Laich is the type of veteran presence that will be dearly missed in the locker room and on the ice.
If the Capitals are unable to retain Brooks Laich this offseason, an intriguing option for George McPhee will be Philadelphia Flyers unrestricted free agent Ville Leino.
Over the course of the last two seasons, Leino has gone from being a healthy scratch in Detroit to a 50-point scorer in Philadelphia, but his offensive numbers don't fully illustrate how much he contributes to his team.
He's a highly skilled left winger who has the speed and agility to play an effective two-way game, which is why he'd be a great addition to the Capitals' top three lines. While he was an impact player with the Flyers, his high level puck skills and skating abilities suggest he could be an even better fit with the Capitals' style of play.
Leino's also a proven playoff performer, as he set a Flyers franchise record for points in a postseason by a rookie, with 21 in 19 games during Philadelphia's run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. For a team that struggles mightily in the playoffs like Washington, they could really use a skilled, two-way forward who plays a gritty style of hockey.
He'll make more than the paltry $800,000 he made in 2010-11, but the Capitals might be able to afford the services of the 27-yea- old if they spend wisely.