- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon began his second full season behind the bench like a seer — answering questions before they were asked, volunteering information that hadn’t been requested. At least his crystal ball is in perfect working order.

“Have we improved? I would have to say yes,” he said before a question was asked. “Have we improved enough? Our special teams have to get better and we have to get better defensively. We have to cut off 60 goals [against]. We have to get down to around the 250 mark.”

Hanlon and the Caps enter Season 2 of the grand experiment: rebuilding a team almost from scratch after the old one was gutted when the high-priced model created a lot of noise on payday but didn’t show up when it was time to work. The new model is leaner and a whole lot cheaper. It still needs tinkering and a lot of fine-tuning but the chassis may be ready for a test run.

“Our special teams were our Achilles’ heel,” veteran goalie Olie Kolzig said. “If we can get that turned around, I don’t know why this team wouldn’t have a shot at the playoffs.”

The Caps went through physicals yesterday (every player passed) and open camp today with two sessions (10 a.m. and noon) at Ashburn Ice House in Ashburn. There are 49 in camp — a smaller number than usual but a more manageable figure.

Washington was 29-41-6-6 last season, six losses in overtime and six more via shootouts. The season was a write-off from the start — a campaign designed to give younger players a year of NHL experience while management assessed what it had.

Several things became apparent from the start. Left wing Alex Ovechkin proved to be a bona fide star with the potential to be the best player in the NHL, if he’s not already. What also was apparent was the club was sorely lacking on defense, had trouble scoring on its power play and was virtually defenseless trying to kill penalties.

Ovechkin, the club hopes, won’t have to carry such a huge offensive load this time. The club reacquired right wing Richard Zednik from Montreal and finally pried left wing Alexander Semin away from Russia to bolster the offense. The team would like to try Semin on the right side but it may not be necessary to move him if Ovechkin plays on a different unit.

To ensure the skill players get the room they need to maneuver without being mugged, the Caps acquired left wing Donald Brashear, an enforcer of some note, from Philadelphia and yesterday added free agent defenseman John Erskine. Erskine’s job description can be summed up thusly: 141 games, 3 goals, 336 penalty minutes.

Defensively, rookie Mike Green moves in from Hershey for what should be a full season to go along with the team’s top free agent acquisition of the summer, Brian Pothier, a defensive standout for Ottawa last year.

“There should never be any questions again whether we can protect guys like Ovechkin,” Hanlon said. “We feel Brashear is the best physical presence in the league who can also play the game.”

But questions remain at the center position. Jeff Halpern left for Dallas as a free agent, leaving Dainius Zubrus and Brian Sutherby to hold down two spots. The other two positions — and possibly a third — are up for grabs. Brooks Laich and Kris Beech appear to be the front-runners to win jobs with Boyd Gordon probably gaining the fifth center position because of his ability to also play wing.

“After the Olympics [in February], I think we played .500 (10-9-3-3) for the rest of the season so it’s obvious we improved along the way,” Kolzig said. “I like the way the team has come together.”

CAMP QUESTIONS

Three questions that demand answers by the time the Capitals finish training camp:

1. How will the club improve on its horrible special teams performance?

It is critical to the team’s success that there be drastic improvement in this area.

2. Is the limited infusion of personnel enough to bail out the defense?

Three players have been added: Brian Pothier, Mike Green and John Erskine, who is expected to provide protection for Alex Ovechkin.

3. Now that they know what they have, is there a better way to utilize Ovechkin’s vast talent?

The second-year star will be the target, but the Caps must find a way to spring him loose.

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