- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

The Washington Capitals will open training camp today with nearly 60 players and at least that many questions that must be answered before the season opener Oct.5 against Columbus at MCI Center.

But no sense in rushing into things — the preseason opener isn’t for another five days following a labor-related 15-month hockey hiatus.

To their credit, the Caps offer no false pretenses about what lies immediately in their path. One season after a massive salary dump, this is a rebuilding campaign with a wide assortment of young players expected to get a chance to show whether they belong at this level or were beacons of false hope.

Nineteen of the 58 candidates expected in camp are former first round-draft picks. There is Alexander Ovechkin, the first overall pick in 2004 who is a consensus choice to be the next, and perhaps best-ever, offensive European star. On the other end of the scale is defenseman Mathieu Biron, selected 21st overall in 1998 and now toiling for his fifth NHL team (a sixth drafted him) after four tours in the minors.

And there is bad news right from the start. Veteran center Andrew Cassels, the Caps’ best free-agent acquisition this summer, has been injured twice in informal preseason skates and is expected to miss the first two weeks of camp with a broken left cheekbone.

More unpleasantness concerns forwards Alexander Semin and Petr Sykora, both candidates to play in the top six rotation. The team apparently has known for more than a week that the two were having visa problems and would be late reporting. By contrast, Ovechkin took matters into his own hands, exiting Russia for Canada, where he was granted a work permit for the United States and subsequently had no problem crossing the border.

It had been hoped Sykora would be in a Washington uniform for the 2003-04 season but he neglected to sign his transfer documents on time. Semin, who mysteriously missed the plane for the Caps’ last game of 2003-04 and refused to report to Washington’s minor league affiliate last season, has been on suspension (which the Russians did not honor) — a matter the club has to resolve should he show up.

There is the Peter Bondra dilemma. The club leader in virtually every offensive category in the record book is an unrestricted free agent who has said he would like to finish his career with the team he spent 13 seasons playing for. Washington had offered a one-year deal at $1.5million with incentives worth another $500,000, and the probability there would be a spot for him somewhere in the front office when his playing days were over.

Bondra’s agent countered by asking for a two-year contract at $2.5million a season plus incentives and a no-trade clause, which Washington promptly rejected. General manager George McPhee said last night he had not heard from Bondra’s agent in several days.

And then there is the Brendan Witt dilemma. Witt is the only veteran defenseman the Caps have, and he has asked to be traded to a team that figures to be more competitive than Washington at playoff time. The team has said it will attempt to accommodate Witt, but there has been no deal so far.

If nothing else, this training camp might well be the most competitive Washington has had in decades. Goalie Olie Kolzig, centers Jeff Halpern and Dainius Zubrus and Witt have locks on jobs but nothing else — Ovechkin is the exception, of course — is a certainty.

Glen Hanlon returns as coach, starting his first full season in that capacity. He has had nearly a year and a half to ponder what he wants to do and now has to attempt to put his plan into action.

Washington should be decent offensively, with a significant scoring punch expected from the European contingent, assuming all players eventually make it through customs. It is on defense where the team figures to have problems, at least initially as youngsters gain experience at this level or show they don’t belong here.

Today’s skating sessions are closed; all sessions starting tomorrow are open to the public.

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