- The Washington Times - Monday, July 1, 2002

Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis has said he does not want to exceed last season's payroll of $56 million. Of course, with inflation as a factor he may have to go over that number slightly. However, the message from the owner is clear: The team's purse strings will be pulled a little tighter this season.
With that kind of edict, where does that leave general manager George McPhee and his pursuit of personnel? McPhee needs to plug some of the holes that exist on the Caps' roster. There are a few options, but McPhee must be willing to gamble and try to fill a few inside straights.
The 2002 version of NHL free agency both restricted and unrestricted began at 12:01 this morning and some of the bigger names available already may have new homes. Goalie Curtis Joseph, defenseman Darius Kasparaitis and forwards Bill Guerin, Bobby Holik, Tony Amonte and Teemu Selanne were all expected to be signed in the early going of free agency.
Some teams were thought to be taking huge financial dips in the deep end of the pool, including Dallas, the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. Toronto, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Chicago also figure to be in the mix.
And where are the Caps? If they don't move quickly, they might be out of the free agent picture, at least as far as players with an affordable talent range are concerned. That would mean the team would have to concentrate on trades to fill holes and get a roster ready for new coach Bruce Cassidy.
Sources around the league maintain Washington's primary target is Pittsburgh center Robert Lang, an unrestricted free agent who took the Penguins to arbitration last season and made $2.9 million. Lang is looking to get into the $4 million range, and that would seem to fit into Leonsis' plan to avoid first class and go business in his effort to win it all now.
The Caps need forwards and defensemen this season and can't wait for the farm system to develop them. Leonsis purchased a Cadillac last summer in Jaromir Jagr and tried to team him with used Studebakers. It didn't work, and the club missed the playoffs for the third time in six seasons. Jagr failed to play in the postseason for the first time in 12 years and had his string of consecutive NHL scoring titles stopped at four.
Lang could be one of the keys in helping Jagr and the Caps get off to a quick start. An Olympic gold medal winner with Jagr for the Czech Republic in 1998, the 31-year-old Lang has had an odd career. He was drafted by Los Angeles in 1990 but released in 1996. He was signed by Edmonton but never played for the Oilers. He was signed by Pittsburgh as a free agent, claimed off waivers by Boston, reclaimed by Pittsburgh and has been a Penguin since 1997-98.
The important thing for Cassidy and the Caps is that Lang and Jagr work well together. Lang is thought to be a good enough player on his own and is not awed by having arguably the game's best player on his right side.
But even if Lang is signed as an unrestricted free agent, other holes still will need to be filled. The Caps need to find a left wing, preferably one who shows up to play night after night, if they hope to formulate a true No.1 line. Dainius Zubrus might be the man, a huge (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) fearless individual who is at home in the corners digging the puck out for others. After Adam Oates was traded, Zubrus centered Jagr during the final dozen games last season and played well, but his true position is wing.
Washington also needs defensive help at both ends of the spectrum. It could use another offensive-minded defender to help Sergei Gonchar, and it desperately needs a bouncer in front, a hostile individual who will keep opposing players out of Olie Kolzig's crease. The inability to keep the crease clear was one of the primary reasons the Caps failed last season.
Players who received letters from the Caps indicating their options had been picked up or they would get qualifying offers are bound to the team. Those who didn't receive those letters are unrestricted free agents. The players in those categories before last night:
Unrestricted free agents: defenseman Frank Kucera, right wing Ulf Dahlen, defenseman Rob Zettler, left wing Benoit Hogue.
Restricted free agents: center/wing Dainius Zubrus, center Andrei Nikolishin, center Colin Forbes, defenseman J.F. Fortin.
Club options: goalie Corey Hirsch, right wing Dmitri Khristich, right wing Joe Sacco, left wing Chris Simon, center Glen Metropolit.
Option exercised: goalie Sebastien Charpentier.


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