- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

The Washington Capitals have reached a critical juncture. The needs of the team are obvious it is getting older and has patented the inability to score when it needs to the most but for once there is an upside.

Ownership and management now acknowledge the faults instead of rushing to hide behind cliched excuses, as was done in the not too distant past. The next two weeks might determine what the team does in the near future and possibly quite a ways down the road.

The NHL's annual draft begins Saturday in Sunrise, Fla. The Caps have 11 picks, none until late in the second round, but that wouldn't make any difference for next season. This is being described as a depth draft, one where you grab a guy to fill a spot rather than taking a player to build a team around.

But between now and the end of the month, the time has arrived for Washington to make a move to improve its offensive production as it must if it wants to beat Pittsburgh next April. There is a huge and talented pool of restricted and unrestricted free agents, perhaps the best selection in years. Some are priced beyond the means of most teams; others are available if the right combination is offered.

"There are no guarantees by simply spending money," said Caps majority owner Ted Leonsis, who noted that the team with the highest payroll in the NFL last season, the Washington Redskins, missed the playoffs. He said the Caps' payroll for NHL and minor league teams reached $44 million, an increase of $9 million over the previous year.

"Five teams with higher payrolls than us didn't make the playoffs," he said, "and five teams with lower payrolls did. Go figure. Payroll does not equate exactly to success."

Leonsis wants "to build the right way. It's a slow and painful process but when these guys develop, they either make the team and are in a position to contribute, or they give you assets to trade."

Leonsis also dwelled on the success some teams New Jersey for one have had in developing their own talent.

Recent Caps drafts appear to be better but are still an unproven commodity. Privately, team officials say they want the recent classes to play at least one full season in the American League, meaning no one is ready to come up.

But first, the Caps have to settle their own labor problems. Adam Oates, the gifted center who will be 39 when camp opens in September, becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1 unless the Caps prevent it. The same holds true for Ulf Dahlen, the 34-year-old right wing on the best checking line in the game last season.

The Caps hold an option on Oates that will cost them $3 million to exercise, based on his performance last season (he led the team in scoring with 13 goals and 82 points, was one of the top faceoff men in the league and, until the end of the season, was the one forward sure to be on the ice in the most crucial defensive situations).

Therein lies a huge problem. Oates and coach Ron Wilson have been feuding since about the March 13 trading deadline, when the coach claimed Oates was tired and had slowed to the point where he had to be taken off the first line. The Caps picked up Trevor Linden at the deadline, he took many of Oates' former duties and the feud intensified. Oates maintains there was no mention of him being a "tired" player until the deal was made.

Knowledgeable league observers with fingers on the pulse of payrolls think Oates is a bargain today at $3 million, considering everything he does for the team, and insist he could not be replaced by a younger first-line center for twice that sum.

Leonsis acknowledges there is a "need to improve the team" but has no intention of "entering the moron hall of fame by just collecting a group of players for a one-year run. I would rather build for the mid-and long-term."

Note The Caps' draft day party will be at the ESPN Zone, 11th and E Streets NW, with Peter Bondra and Jeff Halpern scheduled to appear. The first round will be televised.

• Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.

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