The summer of George

George McPhee is having the best off-season of any NHL GM and it really isn’t close. The announcement today that the Washington Capitals have re-signed RFA Karl Alzner to a two year, $2.57 million (total!) contract is the cherry on top of a very big sundae for Caps fans.

The Alzner contract is a great one for the team. Although he will turn just 23-years old in September, the former fifth overall draft pick is already Washington’s preferred shut-down option on the back-end. Last year, no one faced tougher competition in aggregate than Alzner on the team, let alone on the blueline. He also had the lowest zone start ratio of any regular Washington defender at 49.4%. Alzner doesn’t bring much offense to the table, but that’s not what he was drafted or groomed for – like, say, Robyn Regehr, Alzner was bred to take on the big guns and shut them down. And George McPhee somehow to convince the youngster (and his agent) to take third-pairing money for the next two years. There is almost no way he won’t provide tremendous value at that price.

Let’s take a look at McPhee’s other moves so far to see why a number of other NHL GM’s should start calling him for advice.

1.) Traded Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for first and second round draft picks

The only person whose mind likely wasn’t boggled by this deal was Greg Sherman. Although young and talented, with just 59 career games under his belt, Varlamov hasn’t proven anything yet at the NHL level to warrant the kind of return McPhee demanded. In addition, the goaltender market is so flooded with capable, middle-tier talent that it doubly doesn’t make sense to surrender a couple of high-end futures for the kid. In this trade, McPhee converted what is an unproven and plentiful “asset” into what will probably turn out to be a top-10 pick and another one inside the top-40. Oh, and he saved some cap room by not having to re-sign the pending RFA to boot.

2.) Signed Tomas Vokoun to a one year, $1.5 million contract

The dual act of trading Varlamov for more than he was worth and then signing one of the best goalies available for a bargain basement price probably stands as the coup of the summer. Although Vokoun turns 35 this year, he has a solid history of being an above average puck-stopper. The lowest his overall save percentage has dipped in the last five seasons is .919. He frequently finishes in the NHL’s top-five by the same metric. His age is something of a concern, but the price and length of contract make this a zero-risk, high-return signing.

3.) Signed Joel Ward to a four-year, $3 million/year contract

This isn’t quite the same kind of grand slam as the Alzner and Varlamov moves, but Ward was quietly one of the better options on the free agent list this summer. While guys like Ville Leino who put up some numbers in pillowy-soft circumstances were landing deals north of $4 million per year, McPhee inked a dude who has faced some of the toughest circumstances in the league the last few years and held his head above water. For those unaware, Barry Trotz routinely buried the duo of David Legwand and Ward at even strength so he could give his meager collection of scoring forwards the highest ground possible. Ward’s zone start was 39.8%, one of only about 30 forwards in the league south of the 40% mark. He also faced, by far, the toughest opposition on the Predators. Despite those killer circumstances, Ward was somehow marginally above water in terms possession with a corsi rate of +1.25/60. Meaning, despite starting out far more often in the defensive zone against other team’s top lines, the puck spent a bit more time in the offensive zone when Ward was on the ice.

Most other players deployed in that manner would get crushed. Ward is therefore a highly useful commodity: a guy who can play against anyone and move the puck in the right direction. He’ll fit anywhere in the Capitals top-nine and be a boon to the club’s attack, even if he only manages 30-or so points again.

4.) Re-signed Brooks Laich to a four year, $4.5 million/year contract

McPhee paid near the top-end of the market for Laich, who was no doubt high on a lot of team’s UFA target lists. In contrast to, say, the Alzner deal, the team isn’t going to get a lot of surplus value out of this contract, but at least Laich is a good bet to not be grossly overpaid going forward (something that can’t be said about a number of deals inked this summer).

Similar to Ward, Laich is a high utility forward who can play against almost any level of competition. He’s also versatile in that he can play both center and wing. His 48-points last year were the least he’s managed in the last three seasons, partially because of a shooting percentage that dipped to 7.7%. If that number rebound back up to his career normal rate of about 10%, he should be good for another 20+ goals and 50+ points again.

5.) Signed Roman Hamrlik to a two year, $3.5 million/year contract

One of McPhee’s less impressive signings, 37-year old Roman Hamrlik is a moderate risk to fall of cliff in the next two years given his age. The dollar amounts isn’t a bargain either, although Hamrlik was still facing good players and playing heavy minutes for the Canadiens last year so if he can hang on to that level of play, the Capitals will squeeze value of his deal.

6.) Traded Eric Fehr to the Winnpieg Jets for Danick Paquette and a fourth-round draft pick in 2012

With the signings and dollars piling up, McPhee was forced to dump Eric Fehr’s $2.2 million salary to the Jets fro a nominal return. Fehr was a big scorer in junior, but never progressed much beyond a competent third-line forward at the NHL level, in part do to constant injury problems. A 21-goal scorer in 2009-10 when the Capitals had their historically potent season, Fehr nonetheless has never managed more than 40-points and is probably closer to a 10-goal, 30-point player on average. He was overpaid for his contributions, so moving his dollars made sense even in absence of the club’s cap-crunch.

6.) Acquired Troy Brouwer for a first round pick in 2012 and signed him for two years at $2.35 million/year

Proving nobody is perfect, the Brouwer acquisition and contract rates as probably the worst move by the McPhee this summer. Brouwer has put up decent  numbers in Chicago the last two seasons, but did so in some of the easiest circumstances possible. Last season, he spent a lot of time with guys like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and had a zone start of 62.9% and still only managed 17-goals and 36-points. As such, Brouwer is a competent, if unspectacular NHLer and likely little more than a less injury prone version of Eric Fehr. A first round pick and a contract north of $2 million seems a bit much for third-line winger.

Overall, McPhee had one of the most impressive off-season’s in recent memory, even granting the so-so Brouwer deal. He didn’t step on any landmines (as so many GM’s tend to at this time of year),  added a top-10 draft pick, improved his goaltending for next to nothing, increased the depth chart up front and retained a high-level young player for probably a third of what he’s worth.

Capitals fans have reason to be excited for 2010-2011.