Caps hope to put the pieces together

Washington begins season tonight at home vs. Devils with high hopes for success

Hockey

October 06, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Five-time scoring champion Jaromir Jagr arrived in July. Goalie Olie Kolzig, a Vezina Trophy winner, re-signed in August. Jeff Halpern, the team's third-leading scorer, agreed to contract terms last week.

As the off-season turned to preseason, the Washington Capitals assembled the last pieces of a high-powered hockey engine. Starting with tonight's regular-season opener against the Stanley Cup runner-up New Jersey Devils, they begin to find out how well it will run.

"No one ever knows, but I think we're ready to begin," general manager George McPhee said. "Our lines have come together, and we're healthy. I think we're in as good a shape as we've been in a very long time."

As hesitant as everyone is to boast, expectations surrounding the team are high. With the addition of Jagr, many NHL observers believe the Capitals have joined the Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers and Devils on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.

"We have to be careful," said Caps left wing Trevor Linden. "The perception is that the arrival of Jaromir moves us up in class. But it doesn't instantly make us an upper-echelon type of team."

"We're a hard-working team," Kolzig said. "Jaromir is a hard-working skill player. We have a lot of guys with skills. ... But the only way having Jaromir here makes a difference is if we play as we have in the past. We have to grind away. Grind down opponents. Grind down defenses. Just wear them out and then finish our chances."

The Capitals' signature style of play isn't going to change. Washington will continue to keep its center high, close to the blue line, as the third man back on defense in the offensive end, while allowing its forwards, like Jagr and Peter Bondra, the opportunity to create offense. And the Capitals will continue to expect all five players to pressure the puck and shut down passing lanes on defense.

Fortunately for the Caps, Jagr also has shown himself to be a hard-working guy with a commitment to pressuring opposing puck carriers.

But where he is expected to contribute most is on scoring chances. With Jagr, the Capitals will be better armed to finish them. Jagr and Bondra are the NHL's top two goal scorers over the past seven seasons. Since 1994-95, Jagr has produced 314 goals, while Bondra has scored 281.

To their talent, add playmaker Adam Oates, whose 69 assists last season tied Jagr for the league lead. At 38, he was the oldest player to ever lead the league in that category.

However, Oates represents one possible snag in the Caps' plans. Like Bondra a year ago, Oates has asked for a trade. By late last season, Bondra and the Capitals had made a 180-degree turn, and the previously unhappy All-Star wound up signing a multi-year contract. Oates and McPhee say they are open to such a turnaround again this season, but neither is predicting what will happen. Neither person will say exactly why Oates wants out of Washington. Both do say it is not based on lack of playing time in the past postseason.

"George and I talked before camp, and he said he would try to honor the [trade] request," Oates said. "He also asked me not to talk about it, and I've honored that. As a player, you have to be focused on your job. You can't play with things worrying your mind or if you don't feel whole inside.

"I'm here. I feel good. I'm healthy. I'm a pro doing my job. Same as always."

Another difference for the Caps this season will be that opponents won't be able to come into a game with the idea that if they shut down Bondra, they'll beat the Caps.

"We'd always had a No. 4 hitter, a home run hitter in Peter," said assistant coach Tim Army. "Now, we have a three and four hitter in Peter and Jaromir. Barry Bonds was always a good hitter, but now that he's on a team with people hitting around him in the lineup, he's a great hitter.

"This is going to help Peter and Jaromir, because you can't just concentrate on one and forget the other. It's going to cause matchup problems, and that's going to open up more room for our 15- and 20-goal scorers, too."

For years, the Capitals have been searching for goal scorers. Though they've had their share in the past - Mike Gartner, Dino Ciccarelli, Bobby Carpenter - they could never assemble a supporting cast strong enough to make those players pay big dividends.

But now, the Capitals appear deep and strong. Bondra, Oates and Linden form a top line for any team. Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Ulf Dahlen were so tenacious last season, they became recognized as one of the best checking lines in the league.

The defense returns seven veterans - Calle Johansson, Brendan Witt, Joe Reekie, Sergei Gonchar, Sylvain Cote, Rob Zettler and Ken Klee. And Kolzig is in goal.

All that before Jagr's name comes up.

Still, the Caps will need a little time to synchronize their moves and to settle the Jagr line. Tonight, left wing Dainius Zubrus and center Andrei Nikolishin will start with him.

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