- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2001

A steamy July afternoon hardly seemed the right atmosphere for hockey, but 21 Washington Capitals hopefuls were on the ice at Piney Orchard yesterday for the start of a five-day rookie camp.

With only left wing Matt Pettinger who got into 10 games with the Caps last season having played as many as 19 games in the high minors, the players on hand are more future prospects than immediate contributors.

"This is a chance for me to have a better idea about these players when training camp starts on September 11," said Caps coach Ron Wilson, watching from behind the glass as assistant Tim Hunter ran drills. "This is a nice steppingstone, but what these players do with their off-ice training is more important than anything they're doing out here today."

Defenseman Jakub Cutta, Washington's second-round choice in the 2000 draft, received that message loud and clear last summer and made the unexpected commitment to spend this offseason here rather than back home in Jablonce, Czech Republic, 90 minutes north of Prague. Frank Costello, the Caps' strength and conditioning coach since 1985, couldn't remember another European prospect doing so.

"I had liked working with Frank during training camp last year so I asked him if I could work with him when our season [with Swift Current of the Western Hockey League] was over," Cutta explained. "Working with Frank has made my legs way stronger than they have ever been. And you learn just by being around guys like Jeff Halpern, Peter Bondra, Brendan Witt, Joe Reekie and Trent Whitfield [the Caps who worked out regularly with Costello this offseason]. It has been a great opportunity for me."

And just as veteran Czech center Michal Pivonka tutored the then-22-year-old Bondra in the ways of America back in 1990, Bondra has followed suit with the 19-year-old Cutta.

"Bonzai took care of me," said Cutta, who teases the 32-year-old Bondra by calling him "Dad." "He got me a great deal on a car. He helped me get an apartment. He got me a social security number. I'm very thankful."

Living on his own for the first time, Cutta hasn't really learned his way around a kitchen yet so most of his meals are restaurant-made. An only child, he misses his mother, Jitka, who has yet to learn how to use the e-mail on the computer he bought her.

"She understands that I'm doing what's best for my career," Cutta said.

Cutta had 13 points and 102 penalty minutes last season, his third in Swift Current. A rib injury helped limit him to 47 games. But Cutta was healthy for the World Junior Championships in which he skated for the Czech Republic's gold medal winners.

Despite his solid resume, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Cutta isn't that optimistic about breaking into a veteran defensive corps that includes Witt, Reekie, Sergei Gonchar, Calle Johansson, Sylvain Cote, Ken Klee and Rob Zettler. All have played at least 432 NHL games.

"I can move the puck pretty well and I play physical and I play smart, but I'm realistic about being here," Cutta said.

Cutta said he would rather be the sixth defenseman in Washington playing a few minutes per game than the top blue-liner with Portland of the American Hockey League, but the Caps generally prefer that their top prospects get as much ice time as possible.

"Jakub has always skated well, but he needed to get bigger and stronger and he has done that by staying here and working with Frank," Wilson said. "That's the kind of commitment you like to see. Every case is different, but young players need to play. They're better off playing a lot with their peers than playing a little bit against competition above their heads. But if Jakub could crack our top four, that's a different story."

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