As the NHL labor negotiations gathered momentum earlier this week, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee began to prepare as if there would be an abbreviated NHL season. As late as Tuesday night, he was putting together potential lineups and preparing himself for the challenge of putting a competitive team on the ice in 10 days.
McPhee, however, wasn't disappointed when he found out yesterday morning that a season wouldn't happen.
Building engineer John Needer kept an eye on the resurfacing equipment at MCI Center all winter. It's uncertain when it will be used again.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
"I thought we were playing," he said yesterday in the team's downtown office. "I thought we would be getting going today. [But] I'm relieved . . . [because] the deal wasn't right for us in Washington and it wasn't right for our fans. We want to be able to compete and win a cup, and I'm sure that system wouldn't have worked."
Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt also experienced a full range of emotions in recent days.
"I thought there might be a good chance that we would be playing," Witt said. "In the scheme of things it came down to $6 million, and they couldn't figure a way to bridge the gap. It's a shame for everyone, especially the fans."
Although the cancellation left players, owners and fans disappointed, it may work to the Capitals' advantage in time. McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis were criticized for dismantling the Capitals last season, when they traded away star players such as Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Robert Lang for draft picks and prospects.
McPhee and Leonsis said the moves were necessary to prepare the Capitals for the new economic reality that was coming to the NHL. It was a gamble, and in the end, it appears to have been the right move.
Because of the lockout, Leonsis didn't have to pay large contracts owed the few remaining veteran Capitals, the biggest belonging to Olaf Kolzig ($6.25 million). Meantime, the organization's prospects, such as Boyd Gordon, Steve Eminger, Tomas Fleischmann and Shaone Morrisonn, spent the year honing their skills and fostering team chemistry with the Portland Pirates of the AHL, the Capitals' top minor league affiliate. And whenever the NHL resumes, the Capitals will have the money to fill in the gaps by signing a handful of free agents.
"We have a lot of cash in the bank," Leonsis said. "And a lot of room under the cap. I believed last year this could be a long and contentious lockout. We took some strong medicine."
One issue that remains unresolved, however, is when fans might expect to see Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals' No. 1 overall draft pick last June. He is now playing for Moscow Dynamo in the Russian Super League.
McPhee and Leonsis sounded confident the Capitals would emerge from this lost season in better shape than they went into it. Leonsis pointed to the fact that no season ticket holders had called yesterday asking for refunds as proof that fans are buying into the team's strategy. Since the lockout began, however, about 150 fans had requested refunds.
"I think our fans understand that we have to get a system that works well for us," McPhee said. "The people in Washington want us to win a Stanley Cup, but I'm afraid we were not going to be able to do that under the old system. There was too much of a gap between teams with money and teams without. We're going to get a system here that allows any team to win, like the NFL. And hopefully that is right around the corner."