Saturday, July 7, 2007

It’s the first week in July and the Washington Capitals already have their top six forwards in place, enough personnel to staff their third and fourth lines a few times over and their goalie rotation worked out.

What’s the hold up? Caps fans are waiting — hoping might be a better world — for the other shoe to drop, that’s what. They look around and see improvements, they see that general manager George McPhee has made his biggest raid in the free-agent market since he arrived in 1997, but they also look around and see the same easy-to-move defense that left Olie Kolzig defenseless much of last season.

The Caps will be a better team this season. It’s almost impossible for them not to be. There is a first-line center, Michael Nylander; there is a first-line right wing who can also play center, Viktor Kozlov; there is an offensive-minded defenseman, Tom Poti, who can move the puck out of the zone quickly while also playing a huge role on the power play. All have warts, but that’s not the point.

There is no Scott Stevens. There is no Chris Pronger. There is no Brian Rafalski. In other words, there is nobody to clear a path that would allow Kolzig to see which direction the puck is coming from. There is John Erskine, who plays a physical brand of hockey, the type that makes the Caps better competitors, but his style is foreign to the point where fans don”t know how to react to him.

But don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not about dumping on the cheap Caps. They have gone out and moved some bodies around, as they promised they would. Washington has taken strides to get the long-delayed rebuilding project under way and has sought to plug holes that have existed for years.

But the job is barely started. The three free agents brought in will all make a contribution offensively where any contribution is desperately needed. Defensively is where help is even a bigger priority.

The NHL is still going through a transitional phase, from the lumbering monsters who attempted to skate in the pre-lockout days to the speedy lightweights who replaced them. Some teams — Philadelphia specifically — paid a horrible price to learn how to retool while others — perhaps Washington fits in here — seemed torn over a new direction.

But one thing never changes in hockey and that is the sanctity of the crease, no matter what version of the rules are being enforced. Somewhere along the line the Caps forgot how to defend that very important piece of real estate and the team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2003 as a result. Defensive stats have been indefensible.

That should change. McPhee went after three free agents who between them have scored more than 130 power-play goals in their careers, which should take a large load off Kolzig’s shoulders, meaning he figures he can at least break even in special teams situations.

Kozlov, 32, has worked with Alex Ovechkin previously in Russia. Assuming Kozlov is Ovechkin’s right wing, that opens up avenues for the third-year player that were not there before.

The complaint against Nylander, who turns 35 in October, wherever he has been is that he holds the puck too long, passing up scoring opportunities while playing keep-away. Chances are that can’t be cured, but at least no one has been complaining about his defense.

Poti’s reputation has been as a “soft” defenseman, one who is not as reliable killing a penalty or even in normal defensive situations as he is setting up a power play, where he excels. Poti, 30, should be able to build on his reputation with the Caps.

What McPhee has done is a good start on an overdue job. He hasn’t said that he is done, that he is done tinkering, that he won’t wait for some other team to fall into financial trouble created by the salary cap, thereby possibly exposing the long-sought large, angry defenseman.

It’s just that fans are anxious to hear what sound a second shoe makes.

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