Capitals search for answers

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Sports,Capitals,Brian McNally

Caps have yet to re-sign Ribeiro and Hendricks

Nine days after the Capitals saw their season come to an end yet again in a painful Game 7 Stanley Cup playoff loss, the search for answers has begun anew.

A season that started with such uncertainty thanks to a looming NHL lockout looked quickly lost once play actually began in January. And while Washington shook off that ominous 2-8-1 start to win the Southeast Division and again reach the postseason, that success was lost amidst another blown playoff series. Up 2-0 on the New York Rangers, the Caps couldn't finish the job in the first round.

And so here they are again wondering how to push this group to the next level. There aren't many obvious offseason decisions for general manager George McPhee and his staff to make in the coming months. Washington decided to cut ties with free agents Tom Poti and Wojtek Wolski. The only other players not under contract as of July 5 are center Mike Ribeiro and winger Matt Hendricks. The team does have to sign defenseman Karl Alzner and forward Marcus Johansson, but both players have limited leverage as restricted free agents.

That means if McPhee chooses he can bring back the majority of the current roster. But this group, led by star winger Alex Ovechkin, has yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs. It isn't an old team. There are 19 players under contract for next year who finished the season with the Caps. Four of the forwards and one defenseman are 30 or older next year. The other 15 players will be 28 or younger in 2013-14.

"We still have great young hockey players entering the prime of their career," forward Brooks Laich said. "The window hasn't closed. We aren't one year away from this being our last shot at it."

That's hard to see sometimes. Washington has won three series since the current rebuilding process first yielded a postseason berth in 2007-08. It has made the playoffs six years in a row, but four different times lost in a Game 7 with three of those coming at home.

And there are questions about next year's roster. Does the team have the money or the will to sign Ribeiro? He was acquired last June in a draft-day trade to fill the long-vacant hole at second-line center. Ribeiro finished with 13 goals and 36 assists in 48 games. He had just one goal and one assist in the playoff series with New York, but that goal came in overtime to win Game 5.

Ribeiro says term is most important to him. He is coming off a five-year, $25 million contract. Is Washington willing to give him four or five years given he turns 34 next February? That hasn't been McPhee's preference in the past. But maybe at a reduced salary the team gives in. The NHL salary cap is $64.3 million next year. Even before raises to Alzner and Johansson, there is only $5.66 million left after accounting for the current 19 players.

There are ways to create space, of course. The Caps could trade a player for non-roster assets like draft picks that don't cost money. Or they could use a compliance buyout on a player. That right, granted by the new collective bargaining agreement, does cost ownership money because it pays the remainder of the salary. But it also wipes that salary off the official books to clear room.

"We haven't really discussed [buyouts]," McPhee said. "We haven't had to do much of that in the past, very little actually. Owners like that."

5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

Mike Ribeiro

A draft-day trade with Dallas finally solved Washington's second-line center issue, but Ribeiro was under contract for just one last season. He will be an unrestricted free agent on July 5. But at age 34 in February does he get a long-term contract?

Matt Hendricks

Established himself with the Caps in 2010 after a long journey through the minors, but at age 32 the fourth-line left wing is ready to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time. A valuable penalty killer and shootout specialist.

Karl Alzner

With little leverage on his second contract, Alzner chose less money and just two years. Now a restricted free agent once again, he should see a big salary bump. But can the team lock up its 25-year-old defenseman long term?

Marcus Johansson

Washington's first-round pick in 2009 will still be just 23 next year. Struggled to shake off concussion symptoms early in season but had five goals and 16 assists in his next 25 games after returning from injured reserve. A restricted free agent due a nice raise.

Tom Wilson

Promising 19-year-old has the frame at 6-foot-4, 205-pounds to compete in the NHL next season. But he is ineligible to play for AHL Hershey. Is it better to have him in the NHL or give him another development year in junior?

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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