- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2003

Here’s how bad things have gone for the Washington Capitals, how far the team has fallen this season.

Ted Leonsis, the club’s principal owner, can’t even get his name in Cindy Adams’ Page 6 gossip column of the New York Post.

It gets worse. Leonsis’ team already may have peaked, and it is seven games under .500 just 14 games into the season. It hasn’t won back-to-back games since last March and doesn’t seem likely to do so any time soon.

In fact, it could be time to start looking at the standings from a different prospective, the one in which last shall be first — in the amateur draft, that is.

This season has the telltale signs of one that’s going nowhere. Washington has seven points and is dead last in the league. There is a good possibility the team will finish with its worst first-quarter record in the last 21 years.

Three times since 1982-83 the Caps have captured just 15 out of a possible 40 points in their first 20 games. At their current rate, the Caps will drop the standard for futility below that level, possibly well below it.

What is wrong? Everything. There is enough blame here for even the guy selling grossly overpriced draft beer at MCI Center to get a share. After spending money at what now seems like a foolish pace for a few years, the well appears to have run dry.

The result is a defense that can’t play at an NHL level on a consistent basis. It is not the defensemen’s fault. Each had this career-long dream, a chance to play nightly in the NHL. They are here because they come cheap, unlike some of the league’s better available defenseman.

But there is a trickle-down effect.

Olie Kolzig, who has played all but 74 minutes this season, will be worn out by Christmas. The pressure that this 33-year-old piles upon himself will crush him. At the rate he’s going, he won’t even be good trade bait.

The only two veteran defenders, Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt, are doing the best they can, but they can’t do it alone. Gonchar is playing nearly 28 minutes a game, but his offense is suffering (one goal in 14 games) on a team for which every goal is priceless. Witt is playing much better than some thought he would without his partner of three seasons — Calle Johansson. However, he needs to be more physical, and yet the team can’t afford to have him in the penalty box.

Steve Eminger, a 20-year-old rookie, is playing 19 minutes a game, about twice what he should be playing as he learns what it takes to be in the NHL. He will be good — in time.

Still, a significant contribution from the forwards would ease a lot of the pressure on Kolzig and the defense. But there hasn’t been. The Caps have won three games, and two of the game-winners came from rookie Alexander Semin and John Grudin, a career minor league defenseman.

Other than Semin, the only forward with a game-winner is Robert Lang, who has shown marked improvement this season over last year. He is alone in that category. That means Jaromir Jagr has none, and Peter Bondra has none.

In Jagr’s last dozen games he has two goals and five points and is minus-5 defensively. As one of the two highest paid players in the NHL at $11 million a year, he clearly is a bust. It’s obvious he’s not happy here, and he’s acting like he did in his final year in Pittsburgh. His tirades and pouting might be tolerable if he was still scoring 100 points a season, but those days are gone. His salary makes it virtually impossible to trade him.

As for Bondra, his stats are even worse for his last 11 games — two goals, three points and minus-7. Among the five goals he has scored this season, only one is at even strength. It’s difficult for veteran Caps fans to accept, but it is time to trade Bondra and let him get a shot at a Stanley Cup elsewhere.

If the season isn’t salvageable, then use the first line for players who want to work and try to contribute every night. Fans can understand that — or at least they can understand that more than what’s going on right now.

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