- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Before the season began, the Washington Capitals braintrust issued a list of "storylines" as part of its public relations package 13 of them in all, some of them gloriously boastful and ambitious, such as: "With Jaromir Jagr and Adam Oates, the Capitals lineup features the two players who shared the NHL lead last year in assists with 69."

Oates is leading the league in assists, but now he is doing it in Philadelphia. Jagr is 18 assists behind, with 45 in 66 games.

And this one:

"Washington is one of only three teams in the NHL to win its division each of the last two years. Among the league's most improved teams this summer, are the back-to-back Southeast Division champions ready to make the next step and contend for the Stanley Cup?"

Apparently, not. In order to compete for the Stanley Cup, you first have to make the playoffs. Barring some miraculous turn of events this final week of the season the Caps either making up their five-point deficit behind Montreal for the eighth and final spot in the East, or overtake Carolina and its six-point lead to win the Southeast Division the only thing the Caps will be contending for during the playoffs are tee times.

Here's next year's list of preseason storylines for the Caps, as told by owner Ted Leonsis. It's a short list.

"Redemption," Leonsis said.

Or, in the words of Darth Vader himself, Al Davis, "Just win, baby."

That will be the storyline up and down the Washington Capitals organization next year, and I've got the feeling that if it becomes apparent quickly again that it will be nothing more than a fairy tale, jobs will be lost.

Those jobs are safe for now, and they should be. General manager George McPhee pulled off the deal of the year to bring Jagr to Washington, and the success of the trade can't be judged by Jagr's injury-plagued first season here. And then he robbed Philadelphia in the Oates trade, stockpiling draft choices for next year that put the team in a position to pull off more trades to fulfill what will be the lone storyline for the Washington Capitals next year redemption.

And the way the Caps have played since the Oates trade going 7-2-1 shows that the players have not quit on coach Ron Wilson, and to bring in another coach at this point would be taking a step back, and there is no room for backward steps anymore for the Caps. This season one riddled with injuries to key players like Calle Johansson, Steve Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern was their last step backward they will be allowed to take.

"I had some e-mails from people saying we would go 0-13, that we've thrown in the towel," Leonsis said. "What I am proud of is that they have played great since [the Oates trade]. It shows that we have talent and skill, and they can play as a team, and they have some heart. They didn't just mail it in when we traded in Oates."

Leonsis spoke of his five-year plan yesterday, but it's clear to anyone that it is a four-year plan now. "I have high expectations for the franchise, and if we're not competing for that Cup by the fifth year, I will be very disappointed," Leonsis said. "What we did didn't work. Every season counts, but it is not the end of the world. We had a bunch of injuries, with a tough schedule in a weird year with the Olympics and all that stuff. That being said, I see the way we have played since February, and I wonder, 'Why didn't we do that the whole year?' At least now I am comforted to know this isn't a blow-it-up-and-rebuild-it. This is add-around-it."

Whatever additions will be made, they had better pay off soon. If the Caps get off to their typical slow start next season, I think you'll see a lot of subtraction within the organization.

After losing 5-4 Saturday night to the Islanders and watching Montreal build a five-point lead by defeating Ottawa 3-1 Sunday night, the gloom of missed opportunities hung over the ice at MCI Center during practice yesterday, on, of all days, the team picture day a photograph to capture the disappointment and frustration not just of the prospects of missing out on the playoffs, but doing so at a time when Washington is playing its best hockey of the season.

"No one would want to play us in the playoffs," Leonsis said. "The word is kind of out there that Olie [Kolzig] is playing better, the defense is rejuvenated with the young kids, Jagr is a force, Peter Bondra is playing well, and [Sergei] Gonchar is playing well. No one wants to play us, but we've got to get there."

To get there, the Caps have to win their three remaining games and hope that either Montreal or Carolina goes into the tank. If that happens, the redemption storyline could begin much earlier than next season.

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