Caps enter 30th season younger, faster

Retooled defense short on experience

forwards give Washington hope

Hockey

October 09, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals enter their 30th season tonight with their youngest, most inexperienced defense in decades but with hope that a youthful, faster team can overcome its limitations through resolve and cohesiveness.

"We have a lot of unknowns," said goalie Olie Kolzig, who is entering his 10th full-time NHL season. "It's the most uncertainty, the most lack of experience defensively since I've been here. ... A lot of people are not predicting good things for us. But we still have some of the best forwards in the league, and if we buy in defensively as a team, we can overcome a lot of individual mistakes. By Christmastime -- 30 or 35 games in -- we should be all right."

The Capitals will begin the season at 7 p.m. at MCI Center against the New York Islanders with a 23-man roster that includes six players under 23, three of them teenagers.

Though owner Ted Leonsis said his goals to win the Southeast Division and the Stanley Cup have not changed, he and the team seem to be taking things one step at a time.

No one is guaranteeing anything. And management is no longer saying its biggest stars -- Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang and Kolzig -- have to carry the team, though given the youth on defense, Kolzig may very well have to do more than most.

General manager George McPhee pointed to the Minnesota Wild, last season's surprise team, as the wave of the future, a team on which the individual parts added to more than anyone might expect.

The Capitals tried to deal Jagr, but no other team was interested in taking on his huge contract. That action was not lost on Jagr, who said during a team media luncheon Tuesday that his time with the Capitals has not gone the way he had anticipated.

"But that's life," he said. "It doesn't always go the way you want it to. I'm just trying to make the best of it."

Since the Capitals acquired him from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jagr has had 79- and 77-point seasons while trying to fit in and often trying to play with injuries. This season, Jagr, 6 feet 2, came to camp weighing 218 pounds, 15 pounds lighter than last season. He didn't score in the preseason, but he led the team in games played (seven of eight) and in assists with five.

"I think he's ready," McPhee said. "He has better focus, and he already has his game face on."

Said Leonsis: "What we've asked Jaromir to do is understand the system and embrace it. We're trying to get him linemates he connects with, because the better he plays, the happier he is. It's been unfair of us to expect him to carry the full load. I'm trying to take the pressure off him."

The owner called Jagr "one of the greatest players in the league" and voiced no regrets over having signed him to a long-term deal. He said looking within the organization for player help this season simply made sense with the unpredictability of the coming negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement with the players union.

"We've got Jaromir, Lang and Olie under long-term contracts," Leonsis said. "We needed flexibility to deal with whatever is going to come."

The Capitals' Bruce Cassidy made it through his first year as an NHL head coach with a 39-29-8-6 record and said he plans to give the team more structure and direction this season.

The Capitals will be without longtime defensive anchor Calle Johansson, who declined to return, and veteran Ken Klee, who decided to try free agency.

Veteran defenseman Brendan Witt will be paired with rookie Steve Eminger, who turns 20 on Oct. 31, and veteran Sergei Gonchar will work with Joel Kwiatkowski, 26, who has played in 69 NHL games, less than a full season. The third pair is even more possibly problematic, with Jason Doig (93 NHL games in six seasons) teaming with Josef Boumedienne (10 NHL games in three seasons).

"They've told me I'm the most experienced player on defense," said Gonchar, 29, entering his eighth full season. "That tells you something. It's going to take everybody to skate harder, to break into the zone and make good passes. It's going to take a lot of those little things to see us through."

Dainius Zubrus, Lang and Mike Grier comprise the team's top offensive line. Jagr will team with wing Kip Miller and start the season centered by rookie Boyd Gordon, who at 19 will be playing in his first NHL game. Gordon gets the starting call because veteran Michael Nylander is out up to six weeks with a broken leg.

Bondra will be with Jeff Halpern and Steve Konowalchuk. A fourth line is to be centered by Brian Sutherby and begins tonight with Stephen Peat and Matt Pettinger on the wings.

With the mix at hand, it's easy to wonder what the Capitals will be like -- and what it will take for them to have success. Cassidy said all of his players will have to make wise decisions with the puck, something they didn't always do last season. Halpern pointed to team defense, and Kolzig said: "Every guy has to do his one job and establish trust. ... Trust and hard work overcome a lot."

But no one expressed the unknown future of this team quite like Jagr.

A year ago, he had been jolly at the preseason media day, but on Tuesday smiles were hard to come by. When asked his take on the team's greatest need, he thought hard before answering.

"Angels," he said finally, patting his shoulder and recalling the 1994 movie Angels in the Outfield. "I'm just kidding. But it was a good movie, and this is a good enough team."

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