- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

TORONTO The Washington Capitals drafted three players in the first round yesterday and a total of six overall, but they didn't get what they were looking for.

What the Caps were looking for and desperately need are experienced bodies that can do the job now, while the star elements of the team are in their prime. What is needed are players who can compliment Jaromir Jagr and Olie Kolzig and Calle Johansson.

The Caps selected Steve Eminger, a defenseman, with the 12th overall selection, Alexander Semin, a left wing, 13th overall, and Boyd Gordon, a right wing, at No. 17. All together, Washington got six young men in the draft's first three rounds, some of whom may one day play for the Caps or some other NHL team, but not this season and for the Jagrs, Kolzigs and Johanssons, time is running out.

"I'm interested in winning now because we have guys in their prime," said majority owner Ted Leonsis, who sat at his team's draft table in the Air Canada Centre yesterday, a first for a Washington owner. "We got guys in the prime of their careers so we might as well go for it.

"But I don't want to do something that just tips it so that we chemically become a team that is a collection of assets and not a team. So it would be easy to just go out and play fantasy hockey right now but I think we can plug holes through the draft, through some trades we make and now if we have to go and put someone on the third line through the free agent market, that's OK with me."

What Leonsis and general manager George McPhee said was they tried several different tactics, including one that would have gobbled up all the team's draft picks in one deal, to pry some usable bodies off other teams but could not come up with a workable formula. Quite possibly that said all that needed to be said for the overall quality of talent available in this draft.

Even with the late infusion of some younger players, the Caps are an older team and if they are going to make a major stab at a Stanley Cup championship with the current core of players, it has to be very soon. Not only that, but it is feared a lengthy work stoppage will curtail if not cancel the 2004-05 season. There are only wild guesses on what will come out of that.

The Caps had the sixth-highest payroll in the league last season at $56 million and did not make the playoffs. Coach Ron Wilson lost his job and some players who did not produce as expected might not be back.

The holes that have to be filled are at every spot on the roster but goaltender. There, if past history is a guide, Kolzig will have a standout season because he had a poor outing last year.

"I think we need some more bodies up front," Leonsis said. "We're still looking for forwards, defensemen there's not a position other than goalie that we wouldn't be looking for. We still have the opportunity to make some trades and we might have to go into the free agent market, although I'm reluctant to do that."

The owner quickly said he had no intention of surpassing last year's payroll, which means cuts will have to come from within through attrition.

"George has been given a range and he won't be able to go out and hire an $8 million free agent but maybe a mid- to lower-value one. If that's what we need, that's what we have to do," Leonsis said. "There'll be no deep water diving from us. We still have plenty of time, the rest of the summer to plug some of these holes and then figure out what to do in the coaching situation."

(Leonsis referred all questions on that matter to McPhee. McPhee said he hoped to make an announcement this coming week.)

"Having the sixth highest payroll in the league at $56 million, we didn't need to do that but that's where we were. So I told George it has to be less than that but I haven't given him a number that's unmeetable, unreachable."

The draft picture was thrown out of whack or perhaps properly focused very late Friday night when Philadelphia pried the fourth pick from Tampa Bay for Ruslan Fedotenko and two second-round picks, a left wing of little measurable importance. Then, to get the best forward in the draft, Columbus sent its third overall pick to Florida for the Panthers' top pick to ensure it would get Rick Nash. The usual intrigue associated with drafts was gone after that.

"We can't be disappointed getting three players in the first round," said McPhee. "We tried to do a lot of things. We tried to move up, we talked to other clubs about bodies. It's interesting how things go because the three kids we took we had rated very high, higher than where we took them. I think we did a good job today."

The draft resumes at 9 a.m. today with rounds four through nine.

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