- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2001

Let the bidding begin.

What are we offered for Joe Sakic, heart and soul of the reigning Stanley Cup champions? How much for Patrick Roy, the only man to win the Conn Smythe Trophy three times?

And so it goes, from a Sakic or Roy to a well-traveled, injury-prone defenseman like Igor Ulanov, dozens and dozens of players became available today as free agency in its many forms hits the NHL.

The Washington Capitals confirmed yesterday they were picking up the option on Adam Oates' contract, bringing the center back at a bargain $3 million salary. Right wing Ulf Dahlen has rejected the team's offer and will see what he can command as an unrestricted free agent.

Oates and coach Ron Wilson were at odds during the last few months of the season, and the center was being quoted yesterday as vowing never to play for the Caps again. He made very similar statements through his agent during the summer of 1997 while trying to renegotiate a contract that since has been extended once and now will expire at the end of next season.

If Oates convinces Caps officials he is serious about not playing for the team, he would become very attractive trade material. Although he will be 39 on Aug. 27, Oates still has an exceptional talent at finding an open man with the puck and setting up a scoring chance. And, at $3 million he is a steal. At least two teams have put out feelers; it would be assumed the Caps would want a body in return, not just a draft pick.

The Caps brought Dahlen back from self-imposed exile in Sweden two years ago, and the player's NHL life was reborn. If he finds employment elsewhere, that would open the door for a younger player the Caps probably had planned to keep in the minors for another season.

The team also offered qualifying contracts to Jeff Halpern, Andrei Nikolishin, Trent Whitfield and Glen Metropolit, binding them to the club. James Black, Jason Marshall and Brantt Myhres were not offered contracts, effectively making them unrestricted free agents.

The more sensible among the league's 30 owners are hoping, praying, beseeching the select few with deep, deep pockets to let the crazed bidding wars of the past end so that the salary escalation of the last decade can start to level off. Players and agents are hoping the big spenders will compete against one another as they have before, making instant millionaires out of average athletes.

"We're going to talk to people [today] and determine if there's a fit for our organization," Washington general manager George McPhee said yesterday. "We're looking for some offense."

Just where the Caps' search will take them is not clear. Washington has never participated in the free-agent derby with anything more than benign interest, leaving the market open for teams that truly wanted to win a championship. Owner Ted Leonsis recently described himself as "passionately devoted" to bringing a Stanley Cup to Washington, so maybe the team now will do more than just check what others are doing.

"We're going to talk to some of the unrestricted players and if nothing fits, then we'll pursue trades," said McPhee, still seething over the seemingly premature marriage between Philadelphia and center Jeremy Roenick, who became an unrestricted free agent last night and will sign a deal with the Flyers today for $37.5 million over five years.

Roenick would have been a nice catch for the Caps as a player with scoring potential and a distinct passion for the game. He brings paying fans into the building with his kamikaze approach to the use of his body in order to accomplish the goal at hand. He has never played on a Stanley Cup winner.



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