NEW PLAYERS 11
NEW RULES NO FACTOR
BETTER THAN '03-04? NO
The first puck of the new season has yet to be dropped, but Olaf Kolzig and Brendan Witt, the only veterans remaining from the Washington team that went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, are already musing about a future elsewhere--just one sign that the club's present is anything but rosy. Kolzig, a Vezina Trophy--winning goalie who has 234 victories in a 13-year career spent entirely with Washington, is in the final season of his contract. "I want to be one of those athletes who begins and ends his career with the same team," says Kolzig, "but if it's a three- or four-year project, then maybe I should move on."
Witt, a gritty 30-year-old defenseman with 894 penalty minutes in his nine-year career, asked to be traded during the off-season. "They're rebuilding," says Witt, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. "I think all the signs are pointing for me to move soon."
With the club sputtering in 2003-04, the Caps unburdened themselves of hefty contracts and underachieving talent. Last season Washington finished one point out of the league basement (59). Even with such offensive luminaries as Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar and Robert Lang playing at least half the season in Washington, the Capitals were 27th in goals (186) and last in shots per game (23.7). All four have moved on. "I feel like I've been traded," says center Jeff Halpern, third on the team in terms of service (five seasons). "It's a completely different look."
Different and bleak. On offense the Caps will rely on their two returning high scorers, Halpern (46 points in '03-04) and forward Dainius Zubrus (27). Left wing Alexander Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the '04 draft, out of Russia, should make an impact. Last month the 20-year-old warmed up his English and told reporters, "Good city, good country, good people. I am ready to play in the NHL."
"We're focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel," says coach Glen Hanlon. The light is dim. So are the Caps' playoff hopes. --B.C.
The Caps have a long way to go, but they have a wealth of youthful energy.... Olaf Kolzig is an excellent trade chip.
Alexander Ovechkin [rookie]
Petr Sykora [rookie]
• ALL CAPS denotes new player
• Italics denotes rookie