- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

The primary owner of the Washington Capitals yesterday gave management a vote of confidence while acknowledging that "this was a very, very disappointing season."
Ted Leonsis said he contemplated no changes in the lineup of general manager George McPhee, coach Ron Wilson and their staffs for next season but said he wanted improvements made during the offseason that would prevent another poor start, which the Caps have almost turned into a tradition. Washington fell below the .500 mark on Oct. 30 and did not climb back above it until March 30.
"I think Ron did a heckuva job with a lot of his troops missing so going into next year there won't be any changes," the owner said. "But," he added, pausing and putting emphasis on the word, "this was a very, very disappointing season all the way up and down the organization. Certainly injuries played a big part but I see the way we played over the last 10 weeks, how we've played since the [Adam] Oates trade and I say this team is capable of playing better."
Leonsis blamed a variety of things, from injuries to the integration of Jaromir Jagr to trades to just plain poor play, for the Caps' dismal performance. He viewed the season from the All-Star break to today, wherein the team posted a record of 14-7-3, as a better indication of where he thought the club should be.
Leonsis spoke after the club had its team picture taken, a lineup that is likely to be considerably different at the same time next season. Leonsis spoke of finding replacements for certain forward positions to better adapt to some of the pieces now in place and said the parts to fix and make the defense better were already in the organization.
The Caps, a team many picked to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs, are on the brink of elimination from playoff consideration. Montreal needs only one point to clinch at least a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East; Carolina, the Southeast Division leader, won last night, meaning the Caps must win their three remaining games while Carolina must lose its three remaining games in regulation for Washington to make the playoffs.
"You have to be honest with yourself," Leonsis said. "I look at [last] weekend as being Montreal took care of business and we didn't. We got one point out of four and Montreal got all four. It's more likely that we have an opportunity to catch Carolina than we do Montreal."
Leonsis was able to pinpoint many of the games "we threw away" earlier in the season. "You take a couple of those games and you close them out and we're not in this situation. I hope it's a lesson the organization learned that everything matters, every game matters, every game is precious."
He said the team would not be active in the free agent market during the offseason, at least not the way it was last season when it went out and pulled off the blockbuster deal of the summer, trading with Pittsburgh to bring Jagr to the Caps, the team's first superstar. But he didn't say the team would not be active.
"I think we'll be active in packaging some assets to make a trade," he said. The Caps have three picks in each of the first three rounds of the entry draft, which might draw interest from a team trying to load up on younger players and peddle an experienced wing or center. "Certainly we want to get bigger and younger and faster."
Leonsis got into specifics. On defense he sees Nolan Yonkman and Calle Johansson as one pair, Brendan Witt and J.F. Fortin as another and Sergei Gonchar and Ken Klee as a possible third. "All of a sudden I think our defense is a lot better," he said.
The situation up front is not so easy to piece together.
"I look at the first couple lines and I think they're incomplete," he said. He hoped potential unrestricted free agent Ulf Dahlen would remain so the Jeff Halpern line with Steve Konowalchuk could be reunited as a healthy unit.
"Then we have to figure out what to do with Jaromir's line," he said. "Right now he's playing great with Dainius Zubrus but we need another player there, either a center or a wing who can finish. I think [Jagr] is starting to exert himself and I can't wait to see how he plays next season with a whole compliment."
He said he saw a missing piece in the Andrei Nikolishin-Peter Bondra matchup and foresaw a fourth line of youngsters Stephen Peat, Matt Pettinger and Brian Sutherby.
He said the present team payroll of upwards of $50 million would shrink somewhat but not drastically because he still sees the Caps as major players, not wallflowers.
Notes Gonchar missed practice to be with his wife when she delivered the couple's first child, a daughter. Wilson said it was possible for Ken Klee (broken toe) to play against Chicago tonight but not probable. Frank Kucera (concussion) didn't skate. Ivan Ciernik and Chris Corrinet were recalled from Portland.


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