- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Washington’s salary dump could continue as early as today. The Capitals kept Sergei Gonchar out of last night’s 1-0 loss to Florida at MCI Center even though the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman is healthy.

Gonchar, in his 10th season with the Caps, is believed to be heading to Toronto. Dallas, New Jersey, Boston, Nashville, Colorado and Vancouver also have been mentioned as possible destinations for the three-time All-Star.

Gonchar didn’t play last weekend at Florida and Tampa Bay after taking a big hit last Wednesday against Carolina and because he had a stomach bug. He skated in last night’s pregame warmups, but when the lineups were announced, Gonchar was a healthy scratch.

“I was getting ready to play so when they told me I wouldn’t, I was surprised,” Gonchar said. “I’m still waiting for something to happen. I guess I have to wait another day.”

General manager George McPhee said Gonchar might not play again for the Caps unless he’s somehow still with Washington after next Tuesday’s trade deadline.

“It’s no secret that we’re working on a trade,” McPhee said. “Sergei has indicated that he’s ready to leave so why risk having him injured and not be able to do a deal?”

The rest of the Caps, who sunk to 20-36-8-2, were just as taken aback, falling behind at 16:47 of the first period on Olli Jokinen’s goal with Joel Kwiatkowski serving a double high-sticking minor and never recovering.

“Obviously we thought a deal was done,” goalie Olie Kolzig said. “I know I was in a little bit of a fog in the first period. I was wondering if that was the last warmup I’d take with Gonchy.”

Rick Berry left the Caps short-handed for another four minutes with penalties for tripping and unsportsmanlike conduct at 6:52 of the second period, but the Panthers failed to take advantage of that opportunity. However, Washington’s Gonchar-less power play went 0-for-6 as Florida goalie Roberto Luongo stopped all 29 shots.

“We did a great job defensively, but we were missing our horse on the point of the power play and that would definitely have been the difference,” Kolzig said. “But you have to try to win with the people you have on the ice and we came up a little short.”

The Caps, whose 50 points are the NHL’s second-fewest, know all about coming up short. Under orders from owner Ted Leonsis to cut costs in the wake of five straight springs without a playoff series victory and what most NHL parties believe could be a lengthy labor stoppage beginning in September, McPhee has gained more than $18million in payroll relief by trading captain Steve Konowalchuk, five-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, franchise all-time scoring leader Peter Bondra and league scoring leader since Oct.21. The result has been a tumble from perennial contender status to the NHL dregs.

Kolzig and defenseman Brendan Witt, the other remaining players from Washington’s 1998 Stanley Cup finalists besides Gonchar, could both be dealt with center Michael Nylander, who just returned after missing the first 63 games with a broken leg, also a possibility because of his $2.675million salary and impending unrestricted free agency.

The 29-year-old Gonchar, who makes $3.6million and can become a restricted free agent in July, has said that he wants to follow longtime blue-line partner Ken Klee to Toronto if he’s going to be traded. Klee signed with the Leafs as a free agent in September after Washington opted not to meet his contract demands.

“If the team is rebuilding and wants to build a young team from level zero, I want to go somewhere else,” Gonchar said recently. “I’m not getting any younger and I want to win a Stanley Cup before my career is over. If I am traded, Toronto is a city that would be nice. I have a lot of friends there and maybe Kenny and I could play together again.”

If Gonchar leaves, he would finish second among Caps defensemen with 416 career points (13 behind Scott Stevens) and 144 goals (five behind Kevin Hatcher). Only Hall of Famer Rod Langway has been to more All-Star Games (five) from the Washington blue line.

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