- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee still have one thing left after their purge of most of the team’s biggest stars and high-priced veterans: hope.

That might seem a dubious concept for a club that has traded away its best and most marketable players and is playing out the string in its worst season in 26 years. However, the Caps’ braintrust does have a plan. Specifically, a plan based on a gamble.

Leonsis and McPhee are betting the NHL’s labor problems will wipe out the 2004-05 season and radically alter the league’s salary structure — and leave the Caps with a hat trick of benefits that will lead to a quick turnaround when play resumes.

The cancellation of the season would, the thinking goes, give the Caps’ young talent — much of it accumulated in eight salary-slashing trades made in recent weeks — time to develop at the minor league affiliate in Portland, Maine.

The Caps also would save millions in salaries and rent during a work stoppage, money that would be added to the roughly $30million the club saved in its cost-cutting trades. Those funds would be used to sign the veteran players that Leonsis and McPhee expect to flood the market if the league and the players union sign a new collective bargaining agreement that includes a salary cap and a lower age requirement for free agency.

However, there is a serious downside to the gamble of “creating hope.”

If the 2004-05 season is played, Washington’s roster would be strictly minor league. The Caps don’t have a legitimate offensive threat. They have one proven defenseman. They have a beleaguered, if still above-average, goalie. Even loyal season-ticket holders — who prevented a major attendance collapse this season despite the roster purge and the team’s poor performance — won’t pony up major league dollars for a minor league-quality team.

“Since reaching the Stanley Cup finals nearly six years ago, the nucleus of this team made the playoffs only three times, winning just five postseason games and failing to advance past the first round,” Leonsis wrote on the team’s Web site. “Simply put, we had a high payroll with high expectations, and it didn’t work out. So we are moving forward with an emphasis on getting younger, playing with passion and having a commitment to a team-first mentality. We have a wealth of young players either in Washington or in our system, and we have payroll flexibility that will allow us to make future moves to help the team.”

Leonsis did not respond to interview requests for this story.

The risk for Leonsis and the Caps is great if the team can put only a little talent on the ice and a few bodies in the stands. The condition of the Pittsburgh Penguins stands as evidence of the risk.

The once-dominant Penguins have been laid to waste by financial problems and their failure to obtain a new arena. The Penguins are easily the worst team in the league this season, and the consensus around the league is that the franchise won’t survive if a lockout wipes out next season.

Likewise, the Caps have been mentioned as another candidate for elimination from the bloated 30-team league, along with relative newcomers like the Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators.

The Caps have failed to grab Washington’s heart, despite reaching the playoffs in all but three of the previous 21 seasons, moving to classy MCI Center from cavernous Capital Centre and making a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals. The failures of their pro sports brethren, the Redskins (one playoff victory) and Wizards (none), in the past decade haven’t helped the Caps.

The average attendance of 14,732 for Caps games is down 7 percent this season and stands more than 3,500 below capacity at MCI, which has sold out twice this year. Season-ticket sales were down about 2,000 from their 12,000 peak of two years ago.

“The Capitals are not moving and will not be contracted when the new CBA is in place,” Leonsis said. “We are located in a large market with a passionate fan base and great arena. [The ownership group] is committed to what is in the best interest of the long-term future of hockey and hockey in D.C. Our ownership group has invested significantly in losses during the last five years, probably more than any other NHL ownership group. What we are not committed to is a $50million payroll for a team that is last in its division.”

Leonsis was exasperated by the failure of fans to fill MCI Center for any of last April’s three playoff games despite the team’s star-filled lineup, and he ordered McPhee to slash payroll.

Defenseman Calle Johansson retired after being humiliated by then-coach Bruce Cassidy in the playoff finale. Defenseman Ken Klee wasn’t re-signed. Captain Steve Konowalchuk, eligible for free agency in July, was traded to the Colorado Avalanche on Oct.22 in a deal that goalie Olie Kolzig said shocked the locker room.

On Jan.23, Leonsis approved the deal that sent five-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr — his prized acquisition of 2001 — to the New York Rangers and left the Caps paying about 35 percent of the remainder of his $49million contract.

Then the deals came fast and furious: Peter Bondra, the franchise’s all-time top scorer, was dealt to the Ottawa Senators on Feb.18. Then-NHL scoring leader Robert Lang was sent to the Detroit Red Wings on Feb.27. Sergei Gonchar, the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman, was traded to the Boston Bruins on March3, and center Michael Nylander went to the Bruins the next day. Wing Anson Carter was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on Monday and right wing Mike Grier to the Buffalo Sabres just before Tuesday’s trade deadline.

“Maybe you have to hit bottom before you can get any better, and if we’re not there, we’re pretty close,” said center Jeff Halpern, a Potomac native who is the Caps’ first homegrown player and leads the 21-39-8-2 team with a paltry 31 points. “Losing eats away at you. Clearly a page is being turned here. You hope when you come out of it that there are a lot of reasons to be a Washington Capital. You hope the future is brighter.”

Caps executives, preparing their ticket marketing efforts for the 2004-05 season, have altered their sales message, shifting from focusing on now-departed stars like Jagr and Bondra to selling the concept of team. Aiding the effort is an across-the-board price cut for tickets. Team officials declined to specify an average percentage of the forthcoming decrease because plans are not final. But a price cut will happen, fulfilling an earlier promise from Leonsis.

“The talk is a lot different now,” said Kevin Morgan, Caps vice president of sales. “We’re talking all about team now, and fans want a hard-working, tough club that is in keeping with the history of this franchise.”

McPhee has been skeptical about the likelihood of a quick solution to the league’s labor impasse, so he has operated on the idea of assembling a young group of players who can mature together next season at Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate in Maine.

The roster includes goalies Maxime Ouellet and Rastislav Stana, defenseman Steve Eminger and forwards Alexander Semin, Boyd Gordon and Brian Sutherby — each of whom spent at least three weeks with the Caps this season. Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and forward prospects Jakub Klepis, Jonas Johansson, Tomas Fleischmann and Jared Aulin, acquired in this year’s deals, are also in the mix, along with oft-injured defenseman Nolan Yonkman.

“They’ve got some good, young talent here,” said ninth-year defenseman Brendan Witt, who, along with 10th-year goalie Kolzig, is a survivor of the purge of high-salaried veterans. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Witt (29), Halpern (28 in May) and current Caps Josef Boumedienne, Dainius Zubrus and Matt Pettinger also figure to be part of Washington’s next season. Witt and Halpern are favorites of coach Glen Hanlon for their hard work on the ice and leadership in the dressing room. Pettinger (23), Zubrus (26 in June) and Boumedienne (26) are relatively young.

And Leonsis, having saddled McPhee and Hanlon with such a ground-zero team, has given them the responsibility of rebuilding with the aforementioned youngsters, plus the five picks Washington has in the first two rounds of the June amateur draft.

“This has clearly been the most difficult of my 12 years in [an NHL] front office,” McPhee said. “We all have our pride, but we also have to be pragmatic and make sure that the long-term health of this club is going to be intact. We feel that we have done a lot to make sure that we’re going to be a good team in the very near future. A one-year layoff has gone into our thinking. These young guys are going to be the core of our team when we come back.”

That is, if they come back.

Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.

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