- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

TORONTO The Washington Capitals were at the center of more than one seemingly reasonable rumor last night, the eve of the NHL's 2002 entry draft.

Television interests have shifted the morning staple to a 1 p.m. start with the first three rounds today. Rounds 4 through 9 will wrap up tomorrow.

There is no Jaromir Jagr out there to be gobbled up this time, and no successor to Ray Bourque has surfaced. It is a weak draft as far as star power is concerned, but each one produces its share of NHL players for years to come.

Were this another year, the Caps would be the most envied team in the league with three (12th, 13th and 17th) picks in the first round. But critics claim the true talent in the draft may be long gone by the time the Caps get around to exercising their first pick, leaving Washington with an opportunity to draft only decent prospects.

That leads to one of the rumors making the rounds yesterday. It had the Caps trading up to second overall to ensure it could select left wing Rick Nash, the Brampton, Ontario, product who played last season for retired Caps star Dale Hunter with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

"Anything's possible," a Caps insider said yesterday afternoon, neither confirming nor denying talks had been ongoing with the Atlanta Thrashers. Reportedly, Atlanta was demanding a defenseman who could play this coming season in exchange for the pick, a high price and an area in which the Caps are not that deep.

A Caps source said there was a player inside the top-five rated prospects the club would like to have but would not identify him. Among the players generally regarded as the best five available, however, Nash seems to fit the Caps' profile best and is what they need a scorer and tough competitor. But he would not be ready for the NHL for a few years at best.

"The question becomes how much are you willing to pay for the chance to draft a guy?" the source said. "If he's a sure bet, that's one thing, but there are very few sure bets in this business any more. And the other thing is, you're never 100 percent sure what somebody else is going to do."

Atlanta owns the second pick in the draft. Florida has the No. 1 selection and reportedly had settled on smooth-skating defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the consensus top pick though one with holes in his game. Nash's drawback is his skating ability, but that never stopped his current coach, Hunter, as a player, nor did it stop another Caps fan favorite, Dino Ciccarelli. And defenseman Rod Langway, elected to the Hall of Fame this week, earned the nicknamed "Rocket" as a mockery of his skating ability.

Washington is also searching for players with proven experience who can help right now, especially forwards who could step into a line that would include Jagr on the right side.

One story widely repeated yesterday had the Caps signing unrestricted free agent Robert Lang from Pittsburgh as early as July 1 and matching him with the right wing. General manager George McPhee did not flatly deny that rumor but said majority owner Ted Leonsis already had stated the team would not be dealing in the free agent market this year. But Leonsis qualified that earlier by saying he wouldn't be a major player in the deep end of the pool.

Lang took the Penguins to arbitration last summer and was awarded $2.9million. He reportedly will ask for about $4million this summer, a bargain if he is the missing link who really can turn Jagr loose.

McPhee has not ruled out trading the three first-round picks for an experienced player.

"If the opportunity presents itself, yes," he said when asked if he would do something like that. "We'll explore everything. If there's an opportunity to move up and there's somebody there we're interested in and the price seems right, we'd certainly consider doing that."

He also disputed the claims that this was a soft draft.

"The 2000 draft was supposed to be weak, but we ended up with four players we think are going to play Brian Sutherby, Matt Pettinger, Jakub Cutta and maybe Ivan Nepryayev. There's an NHL player in every round; our job is to find them," McPhee said.

Keep in mind that the Caps drafted Gaetan Duchesne in the eighth round in 1981 and the little left wing managed to hang on for 14 seasons, playing more than 1,000 games.

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