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The value of Caps free agent forward Matt Hendricks

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

There aren’t a ton of internal decisions for Capitals general manager George McPhee to make this summer. He has four unrestricted free agents pending July 5. Defenseman Tom Poti and forward Wojtek Wolski won’t be back for sure. We’re unclear on the status of forwards Matt Hendricks and Mike Ribeiro.

Let’s look at Hendricks. It is obvious other teams are interested (Boston, New York Rangers) just from the chatter rising from beat reporters in those cities since the NHL trade deadline on April 3. The latest came from Larry Brooks of the New York Post just Monday morning. The Caps were in the middle of a playoff run in early April so trading a versatile asset like Hendricks wasn’t a realistic option – even if his contract was expiring. The return wouldn’t have been worth the loss.

But Hendricks is just six weeks away from being able to negotiate with any team in the league. Few players are tougher. Hendricks always seems to be limping around the locker room with some ailment. He’s part of Washington’s leadership group even if he doesn’t have a letter on his jersey. He’s not much of an offensive threat – optimistically, he’s a 20-point scorer in a full year – but he’s a fine penalty killer and can play center or fill in on a higher line, if needed. He also is freakishly good in shootouts.  The problem McPhee faces: What is all of that worth? Hendricks is 32 on June 17. This is almost certainly going to be the only “big” contract of his career.

“When you’re in a cap world, sometimes you just don’t have choices,” McPhee said last week. “This is what you have to work with and if it doesn’t fit for them you move on, you get someone else and that’s the world we live in now.”

Hendricks came to Washington before the 2010-11 season with just 60 NHL games under his belt, but he had played for then-coach Bruce Boudreau at Hershey. And Hendricks made an impression right away in training camp, earning a spot on the opening night roster that season and playing in 77 games. In three years with the Caps he has missed nine regular-season games total. He has appeared in 26 of 30 Stanley Cup playoff games for the team.

But Hendricks had a salary-cap hit of just $825,000 on his expiring contract – a two-year extension he signed in February of 2011. Could he double that on the open market? It depends how much a team is willing to pay primarily a fourth-line player. In the neighborhood of even $1.5 of seems steep. But that’s the whole point of the open market. It inflates salaries. And you can’t blame a player for taking advantage of it.

“Selfish? I don’t know if that’s the right word,” Hendricks said last week when asked if it was time to think of himself. “It’s a business, and it’s part of the business. It’s a big part of the business when it comes to players’ salaries, I would assume. In my opinion. You know, you want to get what you feel you deserve and what is right, and that’s what happens in the negotiating process.”

Hendricks had five goals and three assists in 48 games this season. But his value is measured beyond points. He is a vocal presence in the dressing room, a source of energy on and off the ice, and almost always willing to pay a physical price to help his team win. Hendricks was credited with seven blocked shots in Game 5 of the playoff series against the Rangers – a 2-1 overtime win for the Caps, who had to kill off multiple New York power plays late in the second period and third period. McPhee flatly said he “loved everything about” Hendricks.

“He fights, he hits, he’s a good leader in the dressing room,” forward Jay Beagle said. “He scores big goals and he’s got that shootout move that not many guys can do. I’ve tried it. I can’t do it. He’s a total package player, really. You need those guys on your team. He’ll go down and take a puck off the face if he has to block one. He’ll do it. He’s a good role player and those guys are hard to come by.”

But it’s also true that there is a finite amount of money for McPhee to improve his club. Is paying a fourth-line player $1.5 million – or even higher – a realistic scenario? Maybe Hendricks won’t get that much on the open market and maybe he’s willing to take less to stay in a city he says has been good to him. But someone could be squeezed out if the Caps don’t get creative.

“[Hendricks] obviously does all the things that you’d want your typical fourth-liner to do,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s hard, though, with just the way everything works and trying to fit all the guys in under cap and the amount of players and this and that and him being in the position that he’s in. It would suck to see a guy like that go.”

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14  

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