- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

Adam Oates is playing better than at any time since he became one of hockey's senior citizens. He centers one of the true glamour players in the game, Jaromir Jagr. He leads the league in assists. He is in the top five in the NHL scoring race.
And, soon, he'll have no contract.
The question is, why haven't the Washington Capitals made an effort to keep the 17-year veteran? Oates is in the option year of the only contract he ever signed with Washington, a contract that has been extended once. He makes $3million a paltry sum next to the money first-line centers earn today.
Age is a factor, to be sure. But Oates, who will turn 40 before his next training camp, does not appear to be aging the way 39-year-old NHL veterans are supposed to age. And he is doing things men a lot younger but without his talent would love to be able to do.
Oates will be an unrestricted free agent on July1, able to accept bids from any of the league's 30 teams, including the Caps. There will be bids. Not long-term offers but opportunities to play for another two years, which is what he wants and appears to be physically able to do.
"I've said all along I wanted to stay," Oates said this week, backtracking from what he said last summer when he asked to be traded. "It's obviously not up to me, it's up to them. As of right now, we haven't talked all year. [General manager George McPhee] called my agent a couple weeks ago and said he'll wait until after the season."
Ted Leonsis, the Caps' majority owner, referred questions concerning Oates to McPhee. Repeated efforts to reach McPhee have been unsuccessful. Team sources said there are differing views within management on what to do about Oates' contract and that there have been times when individuals in management have switched sides, making a decision tougher to reach.
Oates is sometimes hard to get along with, outspoken, cantankerous, argumentative, can be something of a prima donna … and is the best center who has ever played for the Capitals, quite possibly the best player in franchise history. He plays in all situations 5-on-5, power play, penalty killing, overtime. He is the first forward on the ice killing off 5-on-3s.
There is something even more important the Caps need him right now more than he needs the Caps. The Caps have only two other natural centers on the roster, Andrei Nikolishin and Jeff Halpern, and Halpern is out for the season. There is one decent prospect, Brian Sutherby, 20, playing junior hockey in western Canada, but he is not ready for the NHL and not the playmaker Oates is.
Nobody in the Caps organization comes close to what Oates accomplishes, skating with a wide variety of linemates. At times it seems he is being challenged to see just how gifted his hands are when he is matched with grinders and mockers, and occasionally he turns one of them into a producer, albeit short-term.
"I've gone like 15 years in a row with 40 or more assists so the stats are there, there must be some consistency," Oates said. "Since I've been a Cap I've led the team in scoring three times and been close the other two seasons. I feel the figures are there so it's frustrating when you're still putting up the numbers but you're not part of the plan.
"But no communications are fine if that's what they've chosen. You have to be professional and you have to play so it's in my best interest for wherever I do play next year to do the best I can right now."
Age certainly is a factor, but there might be other problems in the background. The Caps obtained center-right wing Trevor Linden at the trading deadline last season, and he took some of Oates' ice time. In the playoffs, Oates' role was reduced further. There were angry words, he asked to be traded and was stripped of his captaincy a huge embarrassment in hockey circles.
The principals all claim to have put the incidents of last summer behind them but team sources say doubts remain.
What there is no doubt about is the Caps' current situation, precarious at the very least as far as the playoffs are concerned. If the Caps get in, some of the expected deficit (payroll alone is more than $50million) will be trimmed by ticket sales. If there are no playoffs, some of the expected deficit will be trimmed by unloading players who have not lived up to expectations.
The playoff question and the trading deadline March19 then come together. Before March19 arrives the front office must decide whether the team is in a buy mode or a sell mode. And if it's a sell mode, the decision on Oates could be a foregone conclusion.


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