- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

Although the entire coaching staff and 12 of the 14 players who scored in last year’s playoffs are back, the Washington Capitals open their 30th training camp today with an unsettled feeling.

Not only are the Caps caught between the disappointment of last spring’s playoffs and the uncertainty of next year’s threatened NHL lockout, longtime defensive mainstays Calle Johansson and Ken Klee are gone, leaving a blue line with more questions than answers.

“Our goals are to win our division and to get to the final eight,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, 39-29-8-6 in his Washington debut last season. “We were a win away from winning our division last year and a couple of plays away from getting through the first round, so I think those are reasonable expectations.”

It sounds reasonable except that the Caps have missed the playoffs more often in the past 12 years (three times) than they have gotten past the first round (twice). Washington came home from Tampa Bay in April with a 2-0 series lead only to lose the final four games.

“That left a sour taste in our mouths,” Cassidy said. “We had unfinished business there. We were in control of the series, and we let it slip away.”

To improve upon that history of unhappy springs, Cassidy is strongly considering following Stanley Cup finalists New Jersey and Anaheim and employing the mind-numbing defensive trap. Never mind that Washington’s roster includes the NHL’s top two goal scorers of the past decade, Jaromir Jagr (413) and Peter Bondra (374), and the Caps ranked higher on offense last year (tied for 11th) than on defense (14th).

“You’ll see us play tight in the neutral zone like a lot of teams because of the success they had,” Cassidy said. “I’d love to be the most exciting team in hockey, knowing that you’re going to get your four or five goals [a night], but you’ve got to be realistic.”

Olie Kolzig, whose 201 victories the past six years are second among active goalies, said the Caps would be smart to play that trapping, defensive style even if Johansson hadn’t retired and Klee wasn’t a free agent. And neither Jagr nor Bondra disagreed.

Nor did Bondra dispute the importance of the season for him and other veterans. At 35 and after a team-high 13 years in Washington, Bondra knows he’s running out of chances to win that elusive championship, especially if the owners lock out the players next season.

Though the Caps are relatively set up front, Cassidy is contemplating toying with the third member of his top three lines. While Kip Miller was the right fit at times with Jagr and center Michael Nylander last season, Cassidy might give the physical Mike Grier or 19-year-old rookie Alexander Semin, a first-round pick in the 2002 draft, a look there.

If Cassidy breaks up his top defensive line, he could replace Grier with Bondra in hopes of rekindling some of the firepower that Steve Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern lacked the past couple of seasons. Cassidy also is unsure who to skate with Robert Lang and Dainius Zubrus and is thinking about making Stephen Peat a regular on a fourth “energy” line.

Veterans Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt are sure things on defense with last year’s third pair, Jason Doig and Joel Kwiatkowski, the leading candidates for two of the other four spots. Rick Berry, Josef Boumedienne, J.F. Fortin and John Gruden are also in the mix along with Nolan Yonkman, a second-round pick in 1999, and Steve Eminger, the top pick in 2002.

“We think we have some young players who are capable of playing at this level, and we’ll give them some time to do it,” general manager George McPhee said. “If they can, good for them and good for us. If they can’t, we’ll have to go out and get a veteran.”

Notes — The Caps re-signed the relatively cheap Kwiatkowski, but McPhee said his budget can’t accommodate the more expensive Klee, who might end up in Atlanta. … Eminger, Semin and forwards Eric Fehr, this year’s top draft pick, and Boyd Gordon, the third first-round selection from 2002, were the standouts for Washington’s rookie league team in the just-concluded tournament in Traverse City, Mich. …

The 51-man roster has been divided into three groups for the first three days of practice and intrasquad scrimmages. Two more days of practice follow Monday and Tuesday with a scrimmage Wednesday night at Piney Orchard before Thursday’s preseason opener against Pittsburgh in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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