- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2007

There is virtually no area of the Washington Capitals’ performance this season in which anyone could find meaningful improvement. At least nobody disputes this.

Why would a team that took baby steps forward last season stagger to a halt this season? Two reasons: experience and talent. The Caps have little of the former and even less of the latter.

That the Caps are in this predicament is a matter of economics. Washington ranked last in payroll this season at about $31 million, even less after the blood-letting at the trading deadline. Under the collective bargaining agreement, teams were allowed to spend $44 million — a figure the Caps avoided better than any other club.

Therefore, it was no surprise Saturday night to hear majority owner Ted Leonsis proudly announce it had been a pretty good year for the team business-wise, even though many nights the building looked half full.

“The business was strong this year,” he said during the breakup meeting after the final game. “We had very, very good crowds the last month of the season. [Ticket] renewals have been very, very strong, and our revenues are up. I feel good about our business model.”

But several times during the course of a conversation Leonsis singled out the crying need of the team: experienced players who can lead and perform in tight situations. That need was there in September when the team was being put together, but so was the need to maintain a bottom line that appealed to investors. Both can’t be done, and in this case the bottom line won.

The result was a club that stayed competitive until mid-December, when it simply became overwhelmed by factors it could not control. The Caps depended on fringe NHL players, individuals who looked pretty good in Hershey and the few players with the talent level to survive on their own. There were too few of the talented players to hold the club up by themselves for long. There is a world of difference between the NHL and the American Hockey League, and none of the Hershey grads lasted a complete season.

In years past, the conversation at breakup gatherings had been about “next year” when the prospects from Hershey get to town. The other night it was as if Hershey had disappeared, even though the Bears are having a better season than they did in their championship season of last year.

Instead, Leonsis admitted the obvious: Hershey can be a great feeder system, but at the moment it is short on quality material that can be used to stock an NHL team.

“There is no magic wand,” he said. “I have no idea what will make us a better team, but we are going to be active because there are holes in the lineup and we do need a bit more experience.”

Holes in the lineup?

“You look at our team, and we were [5-14] in overtime and shootouts. We need to have better specialty teams, and that really does come from having a bit more veteran leadership and experienced and maybe some better centers,” he said. “We’re probably going to be in the market via trade or free agency for a center. We need some help on penalty killing and defense, so those are the main places we would focus on. I think a veteran wing is another player we could look at.”

None of this is a surprise. It was obvious coming out of training camp last fall. But to make changes in the lineup during the season, even when it was painfully obvious that changes were badly needed, would have tinkered with the bottom line.

“The most important thing we’ve been doing the last couple years is seeing which young kids can play — who’s elite, who’s going to be a 20-minute player, who’s going to be a 10-minute player,” Leonsis said. “I think we have a good handle on that now, and you know where you need to fill in the holes.”

The draft is June 22, and free agency begins July 1. Let the rebuilding begin.

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