- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

Twenty-two players who appeared in the NHL last season took part in the Washington Capitals' unofficial practice yesterday at the Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, Md. There were times last season when the Caps didn't have that many healthy players in the whole organization.

The 27th edition of the team starts to unfold this weekend with three weeks of training camp that includes eight exhibition games, two at home. Physicals and testing are on the schedule tomorrow before nearly 70 players take the ice.

There are few major questions to be answered now, but that doesn't mean the front office isn't hoping to be forced into some tough decision-making later. Goaltending is set, the forward lines are set, so are the defensive pairs. Now management would like some rookies to throw a summer's worth of planning into chaos.

There could be some new faces added to the mix, but that probably won't happen until closer to opening day early in October, if it happens at all. The club is trying to accommodate right wing Peter Bondra in his stated desire to find greener pastures, but management makes clear this is not a fire-sale situation. Value will be demanded for a former two-time 50-goal scorer or he stays put.

"Any deal doesn't have to take one particular shape as long as it makes sense," general manager George McPhee said yesterday. "I talked to a couple of teams last week where one of the proposals involved prospects, the other proposal involved older players. I'm not opposed to going in either direction as long as it makes sense."

McPhee put no timetable on a possible deal. Chances are better that one would come later rather than sooner, when injury-riddled teams are trying to round up healthy personnel.

Bondra slumped to 21 goals last season after scoring only 31 the previous year. Twice previously he had 52, and in the lockout-shortened 1995 season he was tied for the league lead with 34 in 47 games.

The team is hoping some of last season's part-timers can help make up for Bondra's missing 21 goals, but two unsigned free agents could add to any offensive problems the team has. Left wing Chris Simon led the club in scoring with 29 goals, and defenseman Sergei Gonchar had 18.

"There are a lot of players we think can provide us with 20 or so goals," McPhee said. "And if that's true, we're a tougher team to play against. Joe Murphy should get 20 to 25, [newcomer] Stephane Richer is capable of that and so is Richard Zednik. Ulf Dahlen might get back to 20, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jeff Halpern got there, too."

The two key areas that need bolstering are the power play and the center position. Adam Oates, who just turned 38 and continues to take remarkable care of his body he was one of only three Caps to play every game last season is the lone truly experienced offensive pivot on the team, with Andrei Nikolishin falling into a more defensive role. That leaves Halpern, Jan Bulis (currently injured) and rookies Kris Beech and Roman Tvrdon battling to become Oates' heir apparent.

The power play, or lack of it, played a large role in the Caps' early and embarrassing exit from the playoffs. Washington had an advantage 21 times against Pittsburgh but scored just three goals after a regular season where the club scored only 15 percent of the time. Richer, the veteran free agent right wing, was hired in the hope he can help there.

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