Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next, the all-time best Washington Capitals free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
THE ALL-TIME BEST WASHINGTON CAPITALS FREE AGENT SIGNING
1999 – Jeff Halpern: Two years, $510,000
As we’ve seen with many teams so far in this series, the Washington Capitals history of free agent signings isn’t exactly sparkling. Recent additions like defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik have made an impact, but going further back its hard to find names that stand out.
One of the better of the bunch may have been forward Joel Ward, who found his scoring touch in Washington and turned out to be a very valuable middle six forward who scored some big goals for the club. However, his success story pales in comparison to the local boy who made good, going from an undrafted long shot to team captain, while endearing himself to fans in the process.
Jeff Halpern‘s future with Washington may have been kismet from the start, as the Maryland native played youth hockey with the Little Capitals, a team comprised of local 14- and 15-year-olds, while alumnus and former team captains Rod Langway and Dale Hunter were among his favorite players.
Halpern played college hockey at Princeton University and had a solid college career, making the ECAC Hockey Second Team two years in a row, in 1997-98 and 1998-99. However, after starting his collegiate career as a 19-year-old in 1995, his efforts were too little, too late to catch the notice of an NHL club and just like the previous player in this series, Halpern went undrafted.
1999 was the beginning of a tough time for the Capitals. Led by Adam Oates, Joe Juneau, Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig, the club had made a surprise run to its first ever the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, before being unceremoniously swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
However 1998-99 would see the club take a big step back. While the core remained the same, the club was ravaged by injuries, with no player able to suit up for all 82 games. The club’s depth wasn’t able to pull them out of it and a season-ending tailspin (just four wins in their final 19 games) resulted in a 12th place finish in the Eastern Conference.
Fully out of the playoffs by the trade deadline, sophomore General Manager George McPhee started selling off assets in March, shipping out Juneau, Hunter and long time fan favorite Craig Berube.
As an undrafted free agent, Halpern had his pick of the litter in the summer of 1999. Reportedly, five clubs, including the defending champion Red Wings, showed interest, yet Halpern left money (and potentially better opportunities) on the table to deal only with the Capitals, who snapped him up to a two-year deal that included a $400,000 signing bonus. Playing for his home town team, and becoming the first local player to do so, made all the difference.
Halpern made an impact on the Capitals right out of the gate, and was a big reason why the club was able to get back into post-season contention so quickly. Playing just 13:14 a night, Halpern had a fine rookie season, scoring 18 goals (sixth among NHL rookies and just eight back of Mike York in first) and 29 points in 79 games.
Halpern was easily the best rookie to suit up for the Capitals in 1999-2000, helping the club rise from a 12th place finish the year before to second in the Eastern Conference and their first division title since 1989. In the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Halpern would emerge as a young leader on the club, scoring two goals and three points before the Capitals were eliminated in five games.
Following his impressive debut, Halpern would take a step forward offensively in his sophomore 2001-02 season, earning more ice time and finishing sixth on the club in scoring with 21 goals and 42 points, as the Capitals again made the playoffs, and Halpern again lead the team in post-season scoring with five points in six games.
Halpern would remain a solid secondary scorer and team leader over the next few seasons, as the club struggled to transition from the 1998 Cup Final core to the new core which would prove so successful a decade later. Coming out of the lockout in 2005-06, the club was virtually unrecognizable from just a few years before, with Halpern being one of the few constants.
Ovechkin’s First Captain
2005-06 marked not only the beginning of the Alex Ovechkin era, but also a new milestone for Halpern, as he was named team captain. The 29-year-old had not only been tasked with wearing the “C” but also helping Ovechkin acclimate to the NHL.
The results speak for themselves. Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus and Halpern formed a potent top line, and while the team struggled to a 14th place finish in the Eastern Conference, the trio was magic together. Halpern set a new career high in assists with 33, Zubrus set a career high in points with 57, and Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year with 52 goals and 106 points. Naturally, they finished first, second and third in team scoring.
However, Halpern would leave the club in the offseason, signing a free agent contract with the Dallas Stars, before bouncing around the league, playing with the Tampa Bay Lighting, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Canadiens (again) and Phoenix Coyotes before retiring following the 2013-14 season without having reached those same offensive heights again.
Coming Home Again
However, sandwiched between his first stint in Montreal and his time with the Rangers, Halpern would make a return to the Verizon Center after signing a one-year, $825,000 deal with the Capitals in 2011. While Halpern didn’t have a great offensive season (just four goals and 12 assists in 69 games), the homecoming was sweet nonetheless, as fans had a chance to cheer for their former captain once again.
In total Halpern would play 507 games for the Capitals, scoring 91 goals and 230 points. While he was never an All Star and never garnered any individual NHL awards, Halpern was a key player on the Capitals for many years, captaining the club at the dawn of the Ovechkin era. Not bad for an undrafted free agent from Maryland.