- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

The thing that made the biggest difference to center Robert Lang was when the phone rang at one minute past midnight yesterday. It meant there were people out there who wanted him for his abilities, people he did not have to take to arbitration to get a pay increase.
The Washington Capitals yesterday signed Lang, an unrestricted free agent who had played the last five seasons in Pittsburgh, to a five-year, $25 million contract. The deal calls for five equal yearly payments, an increase of $2.1 million over what Lang made last season after an arbitrator ruled in his favor.
What the Caps are hoping is that he is the key that allows right wing Jaromir Jagr to regain his NHL scoring crown, a string that was snapped last season after four straight titles. Lang was not Jagr's regular center with the Penguins but played with him often. Lang was Jagr's center in two Olympic tournaments, including the 1998 Games when the Czech Republic won gold.
"Yeah, we had good success playing together," Lang said last night, "so it was something we thought about doing again if we could accomplish it. Washington sounded like a great place to go. After a few talks with the general manager, it seemed like a first-class organization, and we just like the situation."
Lang was not considered to be among the top frontline unrestricted free agents available, but he was the only one who fits, the Caps hope, into an intricate pattern they have created. To most teams, he probably wasn't a $5 million center, but the Caps hope they got a bargain at that price if he accomplishes what they desire.
Jagr came to the Caps in a trade last summer, and he was signed to a new contract covering seven years and worth $78 million.
The Caps initially had trouble finding the right mix of partners for Jagr, generally considered the best player in the world today. He worked mainly with Adam Oates and Dainius Zubrus after long periods of experimentation with other wings and centers.
Whether he will work with Lang this season is up to new coach Bruce Cassidy. But the addition gives Washington an offensive center it needed even before Oates was traded to Philadelphia on March 19.
"He seems to be a very well-rounded player," general manager George McPhee said of Lang. "He plays a lot of 5-on-5, he kills penalties, he plays the power play and is supposed to be a real good man in the room. He is just the type of player we were looking for."
McPhee placed the midnight call, one that came in long before in order Detroit, Boston, the New York Rangers and St. Louis. Los Angeles and Chicago came into the picture late. McPhee's initial bid, sources said, was for four years at $5 million a season; he later extended his bid by a season and $5 million, and that was the clincher.
"In looking at the free agent picture six months ago, we identified him as a guy we'd be interested in if he was available because we felt we needed an offensive center," McPhee said. "We liked him because he didn't have a lot of mileage on him; he's just blossoming now. Some players have 1,000 games under their belts when they hit 31; I don't think he's anywhere near that [495]."
Lang has had a checkered career in the NHL. He was drafted by the Kings in 1990 but didn't cross the Atlantic for another three years. He was up and down, back and forth; he was claimed off waivers twice in one season before landing in Pittsburgh on Oct. 25, 1997. Two years ago he had 38 goals and 80 points in 82 games and was plus-20 defensively.
"I had a good wakeup call seven or eight years ago," Lang acknowledged. "You have to adjust your play a little bit to the [North American] style, and if you can recognize some of these things, you'll be able to succeed and do well pretty much anywhere. It took a while, but I'm glad it worked out."
"Given that we thought it would be a good fit, and Jaromir certainly mentioned to [majority owner Ted Leonsis] that it would help, it made sense," McPhee said.
Leonsis also said he wanted the payroll, which hit $56 million last season for a team that did not make the playoffs, reduced. McPhee said he thought it would come in at about $45 million this season even with the addition of Lang.
The roster situation as it stands today:
Restricted free agents and those given qualifying offers: left wing Ivan Ciernik, right wing Peter Ferraro, center Colin Forbes, defenseman J.F. Fortin, center Glen Metropolit, right wing Mark Murphy, center Andrei Nikolishin, left wing Chris Simon, center Trent Whitfield, right wing Dainius Zubrus.
Unrestricted free agents or those not given qualifying offers: D Patrick Boileau, goalie Curtis Cruickshank, right wing Ulf Dahlen, center Chris Ferraro, goalie Corey Hirsch, right wing Martin Hlinka, left wing Benoit Hogue, right wing Dmitri Khristich, defenseman Frantisek Kucera, defenseman Dmitri Mironov, right wing Joe Sacco, right wing Mike Siklenka, defenseman Rob Zettler.


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