- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Washington Capitals made the NHL playoffs in 17 of 19 seasons from 1983 to 2001, a record of sustained quality equaled by only two teams. But the defensive-oriented Caps were no powerhouse. They were eliminated in the first round nine times, made it past the second round twice and reached the Stanley Cup Finals once.

To change that “nice but …” image inherited from predecessor Abe Pollin, Caps owner Ted Leonsis, flush with cash from the dot.com revolution, traded with Pittsburgh for Jaromir Jagr on July11, 2001. Jagr was the league’s highest-paid and flashiest player and a five-time scoring champion. The Czech dynamo was supposed to give the Caps the pizzazz and punch to finally make them champions.

On Friday, the Caps officially declared the Jagr experiment a failure after 2 years with no home playoff victories and a season-long spot in the Southeast Division basement, dealing him and most of his $11million salary to the wealthy New York Rangers.

Caps general manager George McPhee won’t say he has given up on this season with 33 games left and his team a lowly 14-28-5-2, but he concedes that trading Jagr for right wing Anson Carter ($2.8million) is a major change of direction for a franchise that had one of the NHL’s top payrolls during the two full seasons of the Jagr era.

Detroit, whose top eight players account for $52.3million, can afford to pay such high salaries because of constant sellouts, four trips to the Finals and three titles in the past nine years. But with the Caps — excluding the 1998 run to the Finals — having a lone playoff series victory since 1991 and drawing fewer fans than in any full season since 1985, Leonsis and McPhee said enough is enough.

“This particular model hasn’t worked in a number of places,” said McPhee, who envisions Washington following the examples of Minnesota, a 2003 conference finalist with a $20.7million payroll, and Nashville, a current contender with a $21.9million payroll. “We need to get back to being the hard-working team with a modest payroll.”

That means such high-priced talent as 2000 Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Olie Kolzig ($6.25million); team career scoring leader Peter Bondra ($4.5million); Sergei Gonchar, the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman ($3.6 million); and even All-Star center Robert Lang could be gone by the March9 trade deadline. All four will be at least 30 by April and with a lockout looming next season, their value might never be higher despite negatives for each except Lang.

Bondra, who could be out short-term with back spasms suffered in Friday’s 4-1 loss to Florida, will be 36 next month and isn’t quite the scorer he was in his prime. Kolzig is suffering through a second down year in the last three and will be 34 in April. Gonchar is out two to four weeks after separating his left shoulder against the Panthers and has a minus-22 defensive rating.

Add Lang, who’s having a career year at 33, and the quartet hauls down $19.4million, nearly half of Washington’s current $42.4million payroll.

Of possibly being traded, Lang said, “You can’t not think about it, but you can’t really worry about it. Once you’re on the ice, you just go play.”

The only proven point producers beyond Bondra, Gonchar and Lang are slumping right wing Anson Carter, acquired from the Rangers for Jagr, and center Michael Nylander, who has been out all season with a broken leg. There aren’t any big-time scorers lurking in the minors. And Kolzig’s three potential replacements have eight victories among them. But coach Glen Hanlon, while saying he’ll miss Jagr as a player and person, isn’t fretting.

“When you have a player of [Jagr’s] magnitude and that much money being spent, I don’t know if it’s a subliminal message or an outward message that the team is structured around individuals,” Hanlon said. “Now I think you’re going to see maybe it a little more structured around the team concept.”

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