- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2005

The fog surrounding the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement is so dense that there are bound to be huge mistakes by a few teams or agents before the 600-page document becomes clear and easy to understand.

For that reason, among others, the Washington Capitals are taking a slow and cautious approach, not diving headlong into the pool before checking the bottom.

“When you’ve got a new agreement like this, you call for clarification on a couple things and you get a couple different answers,” Caps general manager George McPhee said yesterday. “We got one of those this morning.”

McPhee, majority owner Ted Leonsis and club president Dick Patrick answered questions about the new CBA as best they could yesterday, but all three readily conceded they were totally unfamiliar with a multitude of items.

As Leonsis and McPhee were leaving the board of governors’ meeting Friday in New York, they learned almost by accident that any bonuses offered to promising Russian wing Alexander Ovechkin, whether he earned them or not, would count against the salary cap.

The main ingredient in the six-year CBA is the salary cap with an upper limit of $39 million per team and a floor of $21.5 million, the players earning 54 percent of league revenue. It took negotiators months to hammer out what exactly constituted “revenue,” and it may take that long again for individual teams to fully comprehend what goes into the cap and what doesn’t.

For instance, the $3.4 million portion of Jaromir Jagr’s $7.8 million salary the Caps are paying in the deal they worked out with the New York Rangers last season doesn’t count against Washington’s cap because it wasn’t something the Caps did deliberately in an attempt to stay under the cap. The situation might be different if that deal were worked out today.

The Caps will not be among the big spenders, Leonsis said, because they’re trying to figure out what the new document means, waiting for all its ramifications to come out before making a major plunge.

“We’ll probably be at $21.5 million to $25 million the first year and see what we have, see what we want to do with our own free agents in the following years,” Leonsis said. “The key element in this new system is the ability to act and act fast with the right player. If everyone went out this year and spent $39 million on long-term deals, you’re kind of done. So I think the prudent thing for teams to do is first take care of your own players, the ones that you want.”

Said McPhee: “We’re not going to make huge commitments early on. We have lots of cap room and lots of young players. So there’s no sense in making all kinds of commitments now and then being in jail for two or three years. So we’ll be smart about it but as we all know with Ted in the past, if we think we have a chance to win and go for it, the resources will be there.”

Leonsis and McPhee acknowledged that an influx of free agents would be needed to help their corps of youngsters over the hump getting into the NHL, but they could not say how many would be needed, that figure basically being in the hands of the youngsters.

“We’ll have to fill some positions [with free agents],” McPhee said. He said the team would be made up of “young players who have a veteran core, probably 10 young players that are rookies or have not played a lot at our level.”

The GM said the number of youngsters could reach 14 if they do well in training camp or drop to about eight if they don’t.

“This is going to be a year where we find out exactly what we have with a lot of these kids,” McPhee said.

Talks have opened between the Ovechkin camp and the Caps on a contract, but apparently McPhee has asked for a few days to familiarize himself with the allowable bonuses for rookie contracts under the new CBA. Don Meehan, Ovechkin’s agent, also might need the extra time.

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