- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Dave Fay’s car was run off the road in August in the same rude manner the Washington Capitals’ playoff express abruptly derails every spring. So while he recovered, his predecessor, David Elfin, stepped into the breach. Elfin consulted with the once-and-again hockey swami to see what’s in store for the Caps during their 30th season in Washington.

Q: The Caps get our hopes up every spring and then dash them just as quickly. Why should this year be any different?

A: Whoa. So much for an easy first question, puckhead. The Caps were seven points better last year under rookie coach Bruce Cassidy than they had been under Ron Wilson in 2001-02, and they got back to the playoffs, albeit with a typically ugly first-round exit. Here are three reasons for optimism: (1) Once Michael Nylander returns from a broken leg next month, the Caps should have three potent lines; (2) unlike last year, there’s no need for the players to adjust to Cassidy’s system or for the coach to learn the league; and (3) a kinder schedule includes just five games out of the Eastern time zone, none after Dec.8.

Q: What’s the deal with Jaromir Jagr? He came to town two years ago with five scoring titles, but he hasn’t even scored 80 points for us.

A: The moody Jagr wasn’t an easy guy to figure in Pittsburgh either, even when he was happy at being asked to do nothing but score. Jagr’s freewheeling style has never really meshed with Washington’s more conservative approach, and his arrival coincided with a renewed league-wide focus on defense. Jagr’s off-ice tax troubles and the offseason trade rumors didn’t help his mindset either. Still, all of those factors aren’t reasons enough for such a talent, who’s still just 31, not to produce more than he has for $11million a year.

Q: How come Ken Klee isn’t still a Cap? And if the Caps weren’t going to re-sign Klee, why didn’t they at least replace him with a proven defenseman?

A: The Caps’ financial troubles led owner Ted Leonsis to pull back from the heady days when they acquired the high-priced Jagr and Robert Lang. Klee wanted $3million a year — he eventually signed with Toronto for half as much — and the cost-cutting Caps were never going to pay that. There weren’t that many solid defensemen available in free agency, but Washington couldn’t afford to sign any of them anyway.

Q: How excited should I be about Alexander Semin and the other 19-year-olds?

A: Semin has been impressive since he took the ice for the rookie tournament in Traverse City, Mich., before training camp started. However, for all of his skills, Semin scored just 25 goals in 95 games in Russia the past two seasons. And the last Cap to produce as many as 90 points was Mike Gartner in 1984-85, so don’t expect Semin to be Pavel Bure right away. The Caps will be happy if Semin could adjust to the culture, the language and the physical nature of the NHL while proving worthy of a regular spot. Steve Eminger made the team for the second straight fall and seems more prepared this time, which is important because he’s paired with Brendan Witt on one of the top blue-line tandems. Center/right wing Boyd Gordon is a well-rounded forward, so his learning curve shouldn’t be as steep.

Q: I can’t remember the Caps before Peter Bondra. Is he ever going to get old?

A: Bondra will be 36 in February, but he’s the Caps’ version of Darrell Green — he just keeps rolling along. Bondra’s 451 goals during his 12 seasons rank fourth in the league. Bondra is as fast on his skates as ever, his slap shot is just as hard and he’s in fine shape. There are plenty of NHL standouts older than Bondra, so there’s no reason to expect a dropoff from the Caps’ all-time leading scorer except that he’s being asked to focus more on defense this year as a member of the checking line.

Q: “Olie the Goalie” is such a rock. What happens if he gets badly hurt?

A: Kolzig’s 410 games the past six years are second among NHL goalies, but he actually played a little less (66 games, 3,894 minutes) last season than the three previous years. Did you know that backup Sebastian Charpentier (2.31) actually had a slightly lower goals-against average than Kolzig (2.40)? And 22-year-old Maxime Ouellet, the No.1 goalie for the Caps’ top farm team, looks like the real deal.

Q: The Caps haven’t won a playoff series since they went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. General manager George McPhee fired Wilson two years ago. When does Leonsis make McPhee take the fall?

A: It pained McPhee to can longtime pal Wilson in 2002. Now the GM has staked much of his reputation on the unproven Cassidy. Sure, Leonsis tied McPhee’s hands this offseason in terms of pursuing costly free agents, but if the Caps miss the playoffs for the third time in six years, the owner likely won’t blame himself or the economy. Barring devastating injuries to a bunch of top players, the Caps need to win at least one playoff series for McPhee’s job not to be in serious jeopardy.

Q: MCI Center was virtually empty for the Caps’ three preseason home games. Does anyone care about this team?

A: Preseason hockey is even more meaningless than preseason football because several regulars sit out every night, but the dead building wasn’t a good sign. Having just four home games (three against the New York Islanders and Atlanta) in the first month won’t get anyone excited. The Caps had a tremendous opportunity to win Washington’s heart in the fall of 1998 with the Redskins starting 0-7 and the NBA on lockout, but they won just three of their first 12 home games en route to their worst season in 18 years, and that was that. Then, before Jagr got on the ice for a real game, Michael Jordan suited up for the Wizards and stole all that potential thunder. Plus, as long as the Redskins are winning, no other team in this town matters. The Caps have to sell this season as quite possibly their last opportunity to see hockey for a while with a long lockout looming next September.

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