Caps' first fight: sign Witt before deadline CAPITALS NOTEBOOK

January 15, 1995|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

The Washington Capitals could reap the first benefit from the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement as early as tomorrow, if rookie defenseman Brendan Witt can be persuaded to sign a contract.

The Caps have been trying to sign the highly touted defenseman for two years without success.

"I've talked to his agent, Mark Hall, and I'll talk to him again [today]," said Washington general manager David Poile. "I've made them an offer. We both know we have a deadline [because of league rules]. If there is any interest, we'll see."

Witt, 6 feet 1, 205 pounds, has proved an elusive target from Day 1.

Washington made him its No. 1 choice (11th overall) in the 1993 draft, and as training camp neared its end that season, he was projected as a starter alongside Kevin Hatcher.

But Witt left the team without a word before the season opener, and rejoined Seattle of the Western Hockey League when the Caps and Hall failed to come to financial terms.

Witt again stood out in preseason training camp last fall, but he left again when the Caps balked at the rookie's salary request.

Money has been the sticking point from the beginning. Witt, who will turn 20 next month, reportedly wanted a $1 million signing bonus along with a hefty salary.

The Caps are offering the maximum allowed under the new rookie cap, $850,000.

If Witt and the Caps don't have a deal by noon tomorrow, the next window of opportunity is when Witt's junior team is eliminated from the playoffs. If Witt fails to sign by the time Washington's rights to him expire June 1, he will go back into the entry draft.

Witt, who was a standout with Seattle the past three seasons, decided not to return to that team this season. Instead he has simply stayed at home in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, and worked out with the Humboldt Broncos, a Tier 2 junior team.

Witt did not return messages left on his answering machine.

"It's just another of the mysteries," said Poile, explaining that even though Witt is not playing for Seattle it is that team that he remains affiliated with, according to NHL rules, and it is the end of its playoffs that define the next signing window.

Witt is only the first of a number of business issues facing Poile. There is also:

* Hatcher, who has said he will not return to the Caps and has asked for a trade. Poile would like to accommodate him.

* The current roster has one too many goaltenders and two to three too many forwards.

"We might keep all three goaltenders, but something has to give among the forwards," said Poile. "We only have six defensemen and, depending on how they shake out, we might want to trade a forward for a defenseman.

"As for Hatcher, what I would want in trade varies from team to team depending on who I'm talking to.

vTC "In sequence No. 1, I might want an equal defenseman. In sequence No. 2, some teams at the bottom might offer top draft choices. No. 3, some team might offer good young players. No. 4, it might be draft picks and a defenseman. Every team has

something."

But Poile is not in a rush with Hatcher. There are no deadlines he has to meet with the team's former captain. All he wants is the best deal.

And, Poile said, "If Kevin were to pick up the phone and said he wants to come back, I wouldn't totally shut the door."

Practice time

The Caps were given a warm welcome by a standing-room-only crowd at their afternoon practice at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton.

Children lined the walkway to the ice for autographs, and when the players were on the ice, they happily pressed their noses to the protective glass and watched in wide-eyed glee.

"I'm happy they're back," said 11-year-old Ryan Bosley of Odenton. "Joe Juneau is my favorite, but they're all fun to watch. And I'm looking forward to seeing them play."

Caps practices at Piney Orchard remain open to the public. Any individual coming to today's 11 a.m. practice will be offered the opportunity to buy tickets for the Caps' first two home games, Jan. 27 and Jan. 29, at group rates, a savings of $6 per ticket.

The ticket-sales counter at yesterday's practice had a steady business, and Caps vice president Lew Strudler said the phones have been ringing nonstop at USAir Arena since the schedule was released Friday.

"We actually blew out our phone lines at one point yesterday, the lines were so busy," Strudler said.

Asked if there could be a sellout Jan. 27 for the home opener against the New York Islanders, Strudler said, "It's too soon to tell."

Beginning tomorrow and for the rest of the week, the team will practice each day at 10 a.m.

Real action

Caps forward Peter Bondra scored a hat trick and defenseman Ken Klee delivered the first real hit of the season, banging fellow defenseman Jim Johnson into the boards at 5:43 p.m.

Team captain Dale Hunter and defenseman Joe Reekie got into a heated confrontation.

E9 "We were just playing hockey," said Reekie, grinning.

SHORT SEASON AT A GLANCE

A look at how the NHL intends to deal with key issues raised by the shortened season:

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