- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

For the second time in less than three weeks, a ranking Washington Capitals official said coach Bruce Cassidy’s job is safe despite continued dismal performances by the team.

“It would be unfair to fire him under the circumstances,” said the official, who insisted he remain anonymous. The Caps have lost three straight to fall to 3-11-1, one of their worst starts in team history.

Those “unfair” circumstances referred to a group of defensemen that includes three or four career minor leaguers, the absence of three top veterans from last year’s team and the injury to center Michael Nylander, who was expected to be one of the top offensive players on the club but has been out all season with a broken leg.

Then there’s the general disappointment with the play of the forwards on both offense and defense. Jaromir Jagr, for instance, is a five-time former scoring champion who is one of two players in the NHL making $11 million a season. This season he is minus-3 defensively and on pace to score just 22 goals.

Majority owner Ted Leonsis refused an interview request yesterday, instead pointing to his comments on the team’s Web site.

“I am actually more concerned with the play of our skill players right now and how they compete and work hard to do the little things that win games,” Leonsis wrote in his “Owner’s Corner” report to fans at washingtoncaps.com. “Defense is a team effort. Forwards and defensemen alike must commit to a system of play.”

Washington has been mired in last place in the league for more than two weeks, mainly because of costly mistakes like those in Monday night’s 3-2 loss to Los Angeles. All three of the Kings’ goals came on Caps errors.

Defensively, the Caps are next-to-last in the league; offensively, they are in the bottom third. Their power play is ranked 17th in the 30-team NHL, while their penalty-killers are 24th.

“We knew we would be integrating defensive players who had limited NHL experience,” Leonsis wrote, referring to Jason Doig, Joel Kwiatkowski, John Gruden and Rick Berry. Berry was just recalled from Portland of the American Hockey League, and all four are minor league journeymen brought in to reduce payroll in case, as expected, a salary cap is introduced after the collective bargaining agreement expires next September.

Leonsis said payroll is the same as last year, but those figures are in dispute. According to a Hockey News survey published at the end of October, the Caps were ninth in the league at $51,131,500, about where they were last season. A club executive yesterday maintained payroll was $47 million, while another official said it was nearly $3 million more than that.

“Our payroll remains in the top 10, and we are 30th in the NHL,” Leonsis wrote. “So it doesn’t appear there is a direct correlation between payroll and success. The year we had our highest payroll [$56 million in 1999] we didn’t even make the playoffs.”

Leonsis said “the team continues to be unprofitable. We are now trying to operate within a budget, and that budget is still appropriate given our market size. However, we will lose more money this year than we did last.”

The cap is expected to come in between $32.5 million and $36 million, but there are dozens of questions. One of the biggest is how to incorporate existing contracts, such as the four years Jagr has left on his deal, into the cap limit.

The continued losing and the manner of the defeats have left the dressing room on edge. After Monday night’s loss, goalie Olie Kolzig did not get angry as he might have in the past. Instead, he sat in his stall, still wearing everything but his sweater 30 minutes after the game and talking about being “frustrated” and “embarrassed.” Other players walked around as if in a state of shock.

“We have to score some goals to relieve the pressure,” said one official, noting the team scored two or fewer goals in 12 of its last 13 games. “Some of the newer guys on the team are still trying to find their way in this league. They’re struggling with the pace and the execution.”

Leonsis zeroed in on several areas that can be blamed for the team’s swoon.

“We aren’t scoring,” he wrote. “We aren’t shooting enough. Our penalty kill has hovered around 80 percent, which isn’t acceptable. Our defense is suspect.”

The problems, or many of them at least, keep coming back to the defense. With every team in the NHL watching the opposition on videotape, even while games are in progress, it isn’t possible to hide problems for long. The Caps defensemen, for instance, have trouble passing out of their zone. The opposition has seized on that and trimmed the size of the rink by one-third or more, bottling the Caps up in their own end.

“It’s like a football team being inside its 10 and having a punter who can’t punt,” one team official said. “You know your opponent is going to have good field position before the ball is snapped. We’re in the same boat.”

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