- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2003

The Capitals' locker room was an open wound after Tampa Bay ended their season Sunday, and no one was in greater pain than Ted Leonsis. Leonsis had poured millions into the team much more money than was coming in but all he had to show for it was another first-round playoff exit and 5,000 empty seats.
The horror.
The two-thirds-full arena really stuck in his craw, because Ted considers himself, if nothing else, a master salesman. He's promoted the Caps as they've never been promoted before, certain that this is how you turn a hockey team in Washington, D.C., into the Montreal Canadiens.
Now that his romancing of area sports fans has been rebuffed resoundingly it's time for Leonsis to put away the tables and graphs and try to answer the question: What went wrong? He may not like what he finds, but it's the only way this franchise is going to get where he wants it to go. My two cents:
Jaromir Jagr is the Scottie Pippen of hockey. The Capitals thought they were getting Michael Jordan when they swung the deal for Jagr two years ago, but they ended up with Pippen. How much has Jagr accomplished of a team nature, that is without Mario Lemieux as his center? Not a whole lot. In his two seasons in Washington, Jaromir hasn't even cracked 40 goals and the Caps have failed to win a playoff series. For this, he's getting $11million a year?
Leonsis was hoping Jagr's star power would make the team a hot ticket, but his play has been so uneven that he hasn't pulled in crowds. Fifteen players in the league put the puck in the net as many or more times than No.68 did this season 15! Heck, when MJ came out of retirement at 38 to play for the Wizards, he still managed to finish in the top 10 in scoring average.
There are two kinds of stars the kind who need everything around them to be just right before they perform the way they're capable, and the kind who make everything around them right, who impose their will on a situation. Jagr is clearly the first kind of star. But he's being paid like he's the second kind of star to the owner's sorrow.
George McPhee hasn't drafted a single impact player in his six years as general manager. We all know it takes awhile to develop hockey players, but where are the Capitals of the Future? Some of them should be on the ice by now. McPhee has made some nice pickups Jagr, Michael Nylander, Mike Grier, Sergei Berezin by trading prospects and draft picks, but that's only part of a GM's job. The other part is identifying and acquiring young talent.
Leonsis is mystified (and frankly, a little irked) by the fans' indifference to the club. Well, Ted, it might be because you've assembled a bunch of mercenaries, players whose roots are in other organizations. Fans like to know the players. That's how they become attached to them. But guys like Nylander, Grier and Berezin and even Robert Lang and Kip Miller have just gotten off the bus. Also, it's only reasonable to wonder: Are they Caps, or are they merely Interim Caps?
There's nowhere to hide when you're out of the playoffs and the Minnesota Wild are still in. The Wild have been in existence for three years. And like most expansion teams, their roster is comprised of kids and castoffs. But they came back from a 3-1 deficit in the first round to oust Colorado, which won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago (and again in '96). How long has it been since the Caps beat a team like that in the playoffs?
Did you notice who scored the clincher for Minnesota in overtime of Game7? Andrew Brunette the same Andrew Brunette who was discarded by the Capitals in '98 because he was too klutzy a skater. All he can do, it seems, is play hockey (and when the opportunity presents itself, score big goals in OT). The Caps, you may have noticed, were 0-for-2 in that department against Tampa Bay.
All that said, the Capitals still got a raw deal from Washington Sports and Entertainment. There was no excuse for them to get stuck with home games on consecutive nights against the Lightning, which ended up negating much of the home-ice advantage they'd gained in Tampa. Abe Pollin's minions done them wrong. Obviously, the folks at MCI Center have so little experience scheduling playoff games for the Wizards there's been only one here in the last 15 years that they don't realize you shouldn't play back-to-backers. Especially if the other team is younger or fresher than you are.
You know how many times the Wizards/Bullets have played back-to-backers in the playoffs? Once, in 1982 (when they played host to the Celtics on a Saturday and Sunday). There's a reason for this: It makes no sense. It affects the quality of play in the second game and might give an edge to the visiting club, which is the last thing anybody should want (in Washington, anyway).
That's it. I've run out of italics. The rest is up to Mr. Leonsis. He gave the impression Sunday he was as fed up as the fans and understandably so. Now we'll see if he's truly ready to take the Caps in a different direction.



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