NHL Free Agency: 5 Reasons Why the Washington Capitals Are a Better Team
The Washington Capitals entered the 2011 NHL Offseason with one goal in mind: add players who can help the team finally bring home the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
Just three days after unrestricted free agency opened for all 30 NHL clubs, it appears the Capitals have done just that.
General Manager George McPhee has done everything in his power to give the Capitals all the tools they need to win, so now it's the coaching staff and players' responsibility to deliver a championship.
More than ever, this team appears ready to erase the last four years of disappointing Postseason exits, and here are the top five reasons why.
5. Jeff Halpern's Return Home
Over the course of the last fifteen years, there have been few players as beloved by Capitals fans like Jeff Halpern was during his six seasons with the team.
As the first Washington, D.C. area native to play for the Capitals, Halpern naturally became a fan favorite during his rookie year, as he put up 18 goals as an undrafted free agent.
From there, Halpern became one of the best two-way centers the Capitals have had in recent memory, and even lead the squad in scoring during 2003-04 season. After captaining the team during Alexander Ovechkin's rookie year in 2005-06, he left Washington, but always expressed a desire to return home.
After five seasons with four different teams, George McPhee brought Halpern back for another go round with the Capitals, which was a good move for a number of reasons.
First of all, Halpern in is a defense-first center, which allows speedy Swedes Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson to man the top two lines. In addition, he's no slouch offensively as he's tallied more than 40 points on three occasions.
Prior to free agency, the Capitals were decidedly weak up the middle, so the addition of Halpern will help the team at both ends of the ice.
4. Joel Ward's Playoff Presence
During the Nashville Predators' run to the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals, there was no forward who made more waves than 30-year old Joel Ward.
Which would, in large part, explain why the Capitals handed him a 4-year contract worth $12 million on July 1st. Ward posted an impressive seven goals and six assists in 12 games, leading the Predators in virtually every meaningful offensive category.
After a stunning Playoff performance, Ward became a hot commodity on the free agent market, but the Capitals will benefit from more than just his offensive numbers.
Ward is a solid two-way forward who enjoys playing on a shut-down, defensive unit as much as he does a scoring line, which is another reason why he's a great addition to the Capitals' lineup.
Though the Capitals may have overpaid here as well, he may prove to be a difference maker come Playoff time, which is what the team needs the most.
3. Brooks Laich's Return
The Capitals' top priority entering the Offseason was to retain the services of 28-year old forward Brooks Laich, who was one of the most coveted free agents on the market.
On the eve of free agency, George McPhee and the Capitals announced that they'd managed to re-sign Laich, though they slightly overpaid by signing him to a 6-year deal that will pay him an average of $4.5 million annually.
While it was likely more than McPhee had hoped to pay for Laich, it was absolutely vital that the team bring back one of the team's most important players.
Laich is not only a solid contributor at both ends of the ice, but he's a spiritual leader for a team that desperately needs players that help the Caps maintain composure during tough times (see the eight-game losing streak in 2010), while providing grit and determination night-in and night-out.
He is one of the team's most popular players, not only to the fans of Washington, but also within the Capitals locker room, which is why it was critical that the team bring him back for the foreseeable future.
2. The 'Hammer' Factor
So instead of facing the imposing Czech defenseman once again, the Capitals decided to ink the stay-at-home defenseman to a two-year deal on July 1st.
Hamrlik is the type of physical presence that Washington has dearly missed during their last two Postseasons, but the 37-year old is also capable of adding an offensive spark as well.
While the 'Hammer' has never won a Stanley Cup, he was a vital component of the Czech Republic's surprise Gold Medal performance at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, so he's a proven winner to some extent.
When Washington acquired Scott Hannan from Colorado midway through the 2010-11 season, the Capitals thought they'd found the defensive rearguard that they'd coveted for so long. Hannan didn't quite live up to expectations, which is why Washington went out and found one of the premier defensemen on the market.
Now when teams challenge Washington physically, the Capitals will be able to drop the 'Hammer'.
1. A Starting Goalie Has Landed in Washington
Since Olaf Kolzig left town in 2008, the Capitals have been in search for a true starting netminder and have tried a number of different options between the pipes.
Cristobel Huet, Semyon Varlamov, Jose Theodore and Michal Neuvirth have all been brilliant in spurts for the Capitals but none could help the Capitals past the second round of the playoffs.
After signing two-time All-Star Tomas Vokoun, the Capitals appear to be set in net for the first time in years, as Vokoun has been one of the best goaltenders in the world for the last seven years.
For the last four seasons, Vokoun has been stuck playing for a dreadful Florida Panthers team but has still managed to post solid numbers, including the best shorthanded-save percentage in the league in 2010-11 at .925.
Vokoun is an elite goaltender and at just $1.5 million he's an absolute steal. He'll only have to play 40-45 games during the regular season, so he'll be fresh for the postseason, which is perfect for the Capitals.
Even if the Capitals had failed to re-sign Brooks Laich or lure Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik to Washington, the addition of Vokoun makes the Capitals the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference entering the 2010-11 season.