- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

During the past few weeks the Washington Capitals have signed four players to new or extended contracts.

For a team that typically likes to put necessary legalities off until the last minute, that is unusual.

This is a team in transition. Management already acknowledged that at least six jobs and possibly more will be filled by new players next season.

Therefore what happens in the club’s last 26 games could have a direct bearing on the players — presumably all but the four who have re-signed already — still seeking NHL paychecks next season.

“Everyone is playing for their livelihoods,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said yesterday when asked what was next for his rebuilding team. “They have to identify what they’re doing and where they’re at.

“If they’re playing 18 minutes a game and on the power play, take a look around the league and give yourself a real honest self-evaluation and ask if that’s what you’re going to be doing somewhere else. A lot of our guys — and I said this right along — their [amount of ice time] is a little higher than it would be with other teams.”

Hanlon has maintained for months that many of his younger players are receiving substantially more ice time than they normally would with other teams. It allows them to develop quicker but also opens the door for the mistakes that come with inexperience.

This was designated a rebuilding season long before the previous season ended. It was supposed to be a chance for players the club thought deserved a chance to get a long look — an opportunity to prove they did or did not belong.

A look at the standings shows how poorly the team has performed statistically — 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, with the 15th team, Pittsburgh, gaining ground before the Olympic break. Washington’s combined special teams ranking, 56th, is last in the NHL.

That may be a key reason Hanlon spent the last four days working on penalty killing when not concentrating on reacquiring conditioning after 12 days off. To drive his points home, there were times he walked the penalty-killers through drills usually only seen on football fields.

“We have to improve there, and that’s one of our goals,” he said. “We have to improve defensively, we have to, on our penalty-killing and goals-against.”

The latter category is ranked 29th, with only the Penguins allowing more goals.

“We want to make an impact during these last 26 games, make a statement throughout the league, in our own dressing room, among our own guys,” team captain Jeff Halpern said. “I mean, going 23-3 is out of the question, but it is not impossible for us to go on a streak. We want to use these 26 games as something positive we can talk about. That would be a big thing.”

Notes — The Caps have practiced four straight days with the same 17 players — one goalie, six defensemen and 10 forwards. The three Olympians won’t join them until tomorrow when the team arrives in Toronto.

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