- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

The Washington Capitals begin preparations for the season today with physicals and testing while management takes a head count. It's the latter that may be the most important.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, a restricted free agent, said yesterday he would not be in camp unless he had a new contract. As of late last night, there was no deal, although the two sides did talk yesterday.

Meanwhile, the whereabouts of defenseman Brendan Witt and his availability for camp could not even be determined. Witt lost a salary arbitration case Aug. 15 and has been very bitter about the result, according to teammates. But nobody, including management, has seen or talked to the player in more than a week, leaving the possibility he might boycott camp.

Also not expected to be present are two other restricted free agents, left wing Chris Simon and center Jan Bulis. Simon and the club are reportedly nowhere close to an agreement. At least Bulis and Caps officials are negotiating while the center, rehabilitating from shoulder surgery, remains in the Czech Republic.

But between 65 and 70 others are expected today at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, Md., to get medical clearance to take the ice for the first time tomorrow.

The Witt situation is perplexing. He opted for arbitration knowing the result was final and binding. He made $1 million last season and was asking slightly more than double that, according to sources. But as a defensive defenseman, he did not have any figures to show an arbitrator that he deserved that kind of raise and, according to sources, did not have sufficient comparable cases to back up his claim.

The arbitrator awarded Witt a two-year contract paying him the same salary this season, with a raise of $75,000 next season. Simply by accepting qualifying offers, Witt would have made $2,310,000 over the next two seasons; the arbitrator awarded him a total of $2,075,000.

Witt was perhaps the most improved player on the team last season, advancing from a fifth or sixth defender to being a fixture with partner Calle Johansson, playing in all situations. What Witt had finally mastered in his fifth year in the league is controlling his explosive temper while still using his body as a battering ram. But those qualities are very difficult to show an arbitrator who is used to viewing figures to make a decision.

General manager George McPhee would not comment on the situation yesterday, but the defenseman's options are very limited if he decides not to report. He is under a valid contract and therefore cannot play elsewhere. He falls into the same category as Ottawa forward Alexei Yashin, who while under contract refused to report to the Senators last year, was suspended for the season, lost two legal battles and still owes Ottawa a season of service. Yashin also faces suits over lost revenue and poor team performance stemming from his absence.

The Gonchar case is more clear-cut, even predictable. The defenseman held out twice previously so the fact he is walking away on the eve of training camp is not a surprise.

"They had negotiations with me two times before," Gonchar said yesterday when asked if the Caps knew he was leaving Piney Orchard. "I didn't let them know but they probably figured it out from previous experience."

The defenseman said he would return to Europe to play for a team there or go to Tampa, Fla., where the organization that represents him, International Management Group, operates a facility where holdout athletes can train.

Gonchar said he "only wanted fair market value," but exactly what that is remains open to interpretation. New York Islander defenseman Roman Hamrlik, born within a day of Gonchar in April 1974, yesterday signed a four-year package averaging $3.2 million a season. The two average exactly the same number of points per game, 0.51, but Gonchar is decidedly the better player in his own end of the ice. Yet the Caps defender, sources maintained, recently turned down an offer of $3 million a season for three years.

Gonchar had been participating in the unofficial practices run by players and was one of the last players off the ice yesterday. He said he was eager to get the season started.

"I've been here three weeks already, but unfortunately we can't get this done in this time frame," he said. "I don't want to get out of shape, I just want to go somewhere and play."

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