- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2000

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, facing contract negotiations with 14 free agents this summer, said Thursday he intends to keep the core of the team together while still holding the line on salaries.

In a wide-ranging interview marking the one-year anniversary of his purchase of the team, Leonsis said he wants to bulk up the Caps' overall speed and size. The team's $28.8 million payroll likely will grow by at least 10 percent. But Leonsis remains highly predisposed against the free-spending approach used by the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and several other teams, despite a disappointing first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh and a noted lack of offensive punch.

"We can still be competitive at our price range. There's no magic in simply spending more [on player salaries]," Leonsis said. "If someone becomes available, sure, we'll consider him, but we're not going to abandon our plan. Why would you blow this team up? There's something fundamentally good here."

The Caps' key free agents include leading goal scorer Chris Simon and defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Ken Klee and Brendan Witt.

"A lot of people are saying we should go out and get another scorer. It's really naive to think we can just get that," Leonsis said. "There [are so few of them] in the league, and they're all gainfully employed. That doesn't mean we'll turn our back if there's a chance to get one of them. But our system does work."

Leonsis also intends to conduct another aggressive marketing blitz this summer to boost season ticket sales to at least 12,000. Current full-season equivalent sales total more than 7,000. While more than double the amount inherited with the team, Leonsis wants to match the mark required by all expansion teams entering the league.

The team's average ticket price of $41.03 will not change significantly next season, he said, but will "tweak" some price points. Prices for the 2000-2001 season will be formally announced in the next few weeks.

"I can't really raise [overall] prices, but there are some seats that should be lower and some seats that are too good of a deal," he said.

If Leonsis meets the season ticket goal and the Caps make a deep playoff run, this year's fiscal loss of nearly $20 million will be cut by more than half.

Reflecting on his first year as owner, Leonsis already has numerous other plans laid out for next season.

• Lincoln Holdings, the Caps' ownership group led by Leonsis, is planning to bid for Home Team Sports. The Bethesda, Md.-based regional sports network is for sale following Viacom Inc.'s purchase of CBS Corp.

• More tickets and travel packages will be sold over the team's Web site, www.washingtoncaps.com. The Caps very successfully sold on the site both home playoff tickets and a trip on the team's plane to Game 3 of the playoff's opening round in Pittsburgh. Leonsis again called the site, designed by Illinois-based Ignite Sports Media, one of his primary instruments to boost fan interest and revenue.

• The team will test later this spring new uniforms designed by Tommy Hilfiger. The new design, described as more in keeping with old-style hockey sweaters, features a black and white color scheme with a red, white and blue eagle crest somewhat similar to the current one. The current jersey is one of the NHL's worst sellers.

"I'd give us a B for the year. I want to get A's, but we've still got a long way to go both on the business side and on the ice. You get A's by winning the Stanley Cup, by selling out every night," Leonsis said.

"But I am very excited about next year. We will get deeper in the playoffs."

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