- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Ted Leonsis’ five-year plan to revive the Washington Capitals is as far from reality as ever.

The firing of coach Bruce Cassidy yesterday, though somewhat expected for weeks, marked perhaps the lowest ebb in the choppy 4-year ownership tenure of Leonsis.

Cassidy, considered a risky hire, was chosen to revive a squabbling, underachieving team. Instead, he leaves Washington with the franchise in disarray both on and off the ice.

The Caps have the second-worst record in the NHL, will register an eight-figure financial loss at season’s end for the fifth straight season. The club will suffer another attendance decrease at MCI Center and now rank 20th in the league in average turnout.

The Caps have seen season ticket sales plummet 20percent, own one of the league’s least talented farm systems and still cannot find a willing trade partner for their $11million-a-year albatross, Jaromir Jagr.

General manager George McPhee said yesterday much of the current organizational funk stems from Game3 of last season’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Leading Tampa Bay two games to none, the Caps lost the third game in overtime, sparking a furious four-game rally by the Lightning that ended Washington’s season. By the end of the series, Leonsis was lashing out at Caps fans for not filling up MCI Center during the series.

“We completely lost our momentum and couldn’t get it back,” McPhee said. “And I don’t know that we’ve gotten it back this year. In training camp, there was the sense that we’d all failed. We have not rebounded from that at all.

“We really felt like we should have advanced farther last year, and the loss was really, really hard on this group. Then you go into the offseason, you can’t lock people up [to] long-term [contracts] because of the uncertain [labor] situation, and it created a bad environment.”

Even the doggedly optimistic Leonsis, who was unavailable to comment yesterday, recently admitted the team “stunk.”

The Caps’ current malaise could not be more different than high-energy days when Leonsis acquired the team in 1999. That year and for much of the next three, Leonsis was everything former owner Abe Pollin was not: accessible, personable and willing to make dramatic changes and spend money.

That energy quickly manifested itself in two Southeast Division championships and the much-heralded arrival of Jagr in a 2001 trade with Pittsburgh. The Jagr trade, in turn, sparked franchise-record ticket sales and the first-ever local TV schedule involving all 82 regular-season Caps games.

Just a few months after Jagr arrived, however, the team’s fortunes began to change. A sullen Jagr and Caps sleepwalked through the 2001-02 season, missing the playoffs despite owning the league’s sixth highest payroll. Cassidy, despite rifts with many of the players on the roster, led a return to the playoffs last year.

But the two most pressing questions Leonsis inherited still remain unanswered: how to get the casual Washington-area sports fan to care about the Caps, and how to get the team to transcend a competitive stasis that has included just two trips beyond the second round of the playoffs in three decades of play.

Leonsis’ recent attempts to address both questions, such as seeking to trade Jagr, meeting with season ticket holders to address their concerns and attempting to revive the roster by seeking out younger, grittier players, have all failed.

The immediate future does not look promising. For all of the Caps’ recent late-season runs, none have started from such a deep hole. McPhee yesterday acknowledged he does not know if the promotion of assistant coach Glen Hanlon will improve the Caps’ anemic play.

And after this season, labor strife between the NHL and players’ union is expected to wipe out much, if not all, of next season, further eroding the team’s local popularity and Leonsis’ chances for fiscal recovery.

“It’s obviously a very uncertain time,” McPhee said. “But we were in a [downward] spiral and couldn’t sit back any longer.”

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