- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

This is a puzzle that possibly only Houdini could figure out.

Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis acknowledges that there are some big holes on the team roster, mostly at forward positions, and it will probably take free agents to fill them. Yet he wants the Caps' payroll, roughly $54million during a "very, very disappointing season," reined back into the $40-something-million range.

General manager George McPhee said no decisions have been made on personnel yet and perhaps none will be for a month or so until he thoroughly digests the season player by player. Certainly, he said yesterday, nothing has been decided about free agency, which starts July 1, but Leonsis said his general manager has "carte blanche" to do what he thinks is necessary to improve the team.

Perhaps no decisions have been made but the team this season was taught a painful personnel lesson. In areas where it was thought to be deep, notably on defense and at center, it turned out to be thin at least as far as NHL caliber players were concerned. When the season ended, for instance, the Caps had only one center playing: Andrei Nikolishin.

Washington has six weeks to make decisions because offers concerning next season have to be in hand by June 1. Six individuals who appeared with the team at some point this season are entering the club-option portion of their contracts, meaning they have to be notified if the Caps intend to keep them or release them.

Four others are restricted free agents, meaning about the only leverage they have if contract negotiations are not successful is to hold out. Four others are unrestricted free agents who can return if offered a deal or go wherever they want at whatever price they can command.

The biggest challenge for McPhee may be in goal. Starter Olie Kolzig is locked up for another five years, and backup Craig Billington has a year left on his deal. But Sebastien Charpentier, who played very well in two season-ending games, is entering his option year. So is Corey Hirsch, a very valuable insurance policy who is available in a moment's notice in case of emergencies.

Billington has performed well in his role on the ice and probably even better off the ice, rallying support in some very dire circumstances. But Billington, 35, is 10 years older than Charpentier and it may be time for youth to be served.

Others facing options are all forwards: Dmitri Khristich, Joe Sacco, Chris Simon and Glen Metropolit. Khristich, a part-timer at $3.2million, is almost certain to be released. The club was very disappointed with Simon's contribution, and at $2.25million, he will have to take a hefty cut to return. Metropolit has caught Leonsis' eye, which may be worth something, and Sacco is valuable as a utility man albeit goal-challenged.

The restricted free agents are Dainius Zubrus, who may see his $1million salary doubled; Andrei Nikolishin, probably looking at another qualifying offer that means a 10 percent raise; Colin Forbes, who might be offered a two-way contract; and J.F. Fortin, who will get a large pay increase.

Of the unrestricted players, late addition Benoit Hogue almost certainly will be released. Rob Zettler, a valuable seventh defenseman, may be offered a two-way deal, and Frantisek Kucera, who helped bail the Caps out in November, will probably be offered a contract. Wing Ulf Dahlen, who had 14 of his 23 goals before Christmas and was shifted to a checking role after he was injured, has let it be known he will seriously listen to other offers or possibly resume his career in the Swedish Elite League.

Jaromir Jagr, for those interested, has six years to go on his contract followed by a club option. There are no immediate plans to renegotiate.

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