- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

Obviously, the Capitals are getting all the bad stuff out of the way early this season. (Unless shudder this is just a preview of coming attractions.) Consider:

• Olie Kolzig, their Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender, had knee surgery Tuesday and will miss three weeks.

• Sergei Gonchar, their top defenseman, and Chris Simon, their leading goal-scorer a year ago, are holding out.

• Peter Bondra, who wants to be traded, recently scuttled a deal with Montreal.

• Brendan Witt, coming off his best season as a pro, is upset about losing his salary arbitration.

Have I missed anything? Oh, yeah, Stephane Richer, one of their offseason pickups, decided to retire after just one practice.

No, it hasn't been a particularly blissful training camp for the local hockey club. And after last year's 32-10-6 finish we'll overlook the first-round playoff loss to the Penguins it should have been. The Caps should be riding into the regular season on a wave of optimism. Instead, they're dealing with all these issues. Think about it: Is there another contender in the league that has such a laundry list of woes?

Actually, assuming it's not a lingering thing, Kolzig's injury might help the Capitals in the long run. How? By forcing them to use backup Craig Billington more. I think Olie played too much last year 73 games and, as a result, wasn't as sharp in the playoffs. Maybe Ron Wilson will go easier on him now, give him a few more days off to rest his knee (if not his nerves). I'd sacrifice some points in the standings for a fresher Kolzig in April and May.

The absences of Gonchar and Simon are more problematical. True, Gonchar held out in '98 and still managed to score 21 goals in 53 games, but it would be nice to see what he could do just once if he played in all 82. As for Simon, the Caps can only hope he's working out diligently with his personal trainer as he did before his breakout season last year. The team needs the same kind of production (29 goals) out of him this season, if not more.

Especially with Bondra possibly headed out the door. You hate to lose a player who has provided so many thrills over the years, but the time is probably right for Bonzai. He looks out of place in Wilson's defense-first system like a Maserati at the Soap Box Derby. It will be interesting to see what kind of market value he has that is, what George McPhee can get for him. He isn't the 50-Goal Guy he used to be, but he can still put the puck in the net.

My only comment about the Witt situation is this: In 1993, when he was the Caps' first-round pick, he played hard-to-get for two years at one point sitting out an entire season before finally agreeing to terms. And now, when the skate is on the other foot and it's the team that's benefiting from the system, he has the nerve to complain? This is how it works in the real world, Brendan. Sometimes you have the upper hand, and sometimes management has the upper hand, and it really doesn't do much good to get bitter about it.

Finally, it's unfortunate the Richer signing didn't work out. (Who knows? He could have been this year's Ulf Dahlen.) Fear not, though. The Capitals' camp hasn't been entirely devoid of good news. For starters, old friends Sylvain Cote (from Dallas) and Craig Berube (from Philly) are back and the former will come in particularly handy if Gonchar continues to hold out. Jan Bulis, meanwhile, seems to have recovered from his shoulder injury. (Maybe this will be the year he puts it all together.)

Best of all, a bunch of the kids have shown promise: recent No. 1 picks Kris Beech and Brian Sutherby, Providence College defenseman Mike Farrell, Czech defenseman Jakub Cutta. With Adam Oates, Calle Johansson, Joe Reekie and Dahlen all well into their 30s and Bondra and Dmitri Mironov seemingly on the way out, some new blood will be needed soon.

At least the early part of the schedule is more accommodating this season. (Translation: The killer West Coast trip isn't until February.) That gives Kolzig some time to heal and the two holdouts some time to catch up (once they sign, that is). Still, there's no denying it: The Caps aren't off to a very encouraging start. And the real games begin in just eight days.

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