The Caps are capped

Jason Chimera could be one of the players on the move as a result of Washington's cap crunch.

If an NHL team was a living, breathing person, the Washington Capitals would be slightly overweight. Not the kind of overweight that’s especially noticeable, but the kind that’s just annoying enough that an extra belt buckle is required.

And we all know what happens if the ballooning continues and family members start to notice a little extra chub. Clothes drawers are ransacked, with those bloody savages seizing a moment of weakness and pulling apart a now obsolete wardrobe.

The Capitals have burst their lowest button after the signing of recent acquisition Troy Brouwer earlier today, leaving us to speculate about a forthcoming move.

Speculating is our favourite July activity, so let’s get to it.

Brouwer’s signing is just the latest of what’s becoming an impressive summer for Washington general manager George McPhee, who added some grit and grind in the form of Jeff Halpern, solved his goaltending leak with the signing of Tomas Vokoun, plucked Joel Ward fresh off of his impressive playoff performance, and slotted in Roman Hamrlik on the blue line.

But there’s a cost to all of that spending that goes beyond the number signed on each players’ dotted line. Brouwer’s two-year deal valued at $4.7 million and at a cap hit of $2.35 million annually puts the Capitals $1,805,128 over the league’s $64.3 million salary cap (thanks for giving me a headache with all of those numbers, Capgeek). Teams are permitted to go over the salary cap by as much as 10 percent during the offseason, extra weight that has to be shed prior to October.

Unrestricted free agent defenceman Scott Hannan–who was acquired in a trade that sent Tomas Fleischmann to Colorado in November–was already highly unlikely to be re-signed at his cap hit of $4.5 million last year. His bags were then officially pack following Hamrlik’s signing. However, McPhee still has to deal with another hole on the back end and sign restricted free agent defenceman Karl Alzner, a promising 22-year-old and the fifth overall pick in 2007 who just completed his first full 82-game NHL season.

Alzner is the only remaining RFA on Washington’s roster, and McPhee undoubtedly has little desire to lose a mobile defenceman drafted at a high position who’s moving swiftly in his development. That leaves two primary options to free up cap space, one of which involves dreams dominated by visions of pipes, and another that will see the trimming of useful but expendable pieces.

The former option is unlikely because the odds of McPhee moving Alex Semin are about as good as the chances of any team that’s not located in Tampa Bay signing Steven Stamkos. Washington’s cap situation fueled some light wishful thinking amongst the dogs circling McPhee’s meat, speculation also spawned by Semin’s status as a pending UFA next summer.

Semin’s offence (28 goals and 54 points over 65 games) is the obvious reason why this is unlikely. Even if McPhee thinks he can swing a deal to move Semin now before his big payday and get several cheaper but promising offensive pieces in return (see: the Mike Richards deal), he’ll be covering a pinprick leak with an industrial sized plug because Semin’s yearly cap hit is $6.7 million. It’s difficult to justify the loss of such an explosive offensive player to compensate for just a $1.8 million cap gap, especially given the uncertain future production of Nicklas Backstrom.

The far more likely path will see one or more of Washington’s bottom six players moved. Efficient penalty killers and two-way players like Jason Chimera ($1.88 million cap hit) and Eric Fehr ($2.2 million) can now be replaced by Brouwer and Halpern. Brouwer’s age and growing scoring touch could also make the 39-year-old Mike Knuble ($2 million cap hit) expendable. Knuble may be desirable for a younger team looking to add a veteran now that Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner are both off the market.

No matter how this all shakes itself out, the Capitals have gained some serious backbone this summer, both in the crease and up front. This means that we’ll likely see less cursing from Teddy Ruxpin, and that makes us sad.