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Leonsis Makes Summer Plans

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The upcoming offseason for the Washington Capitals won't include any expensive forays into the free agent market, but rather "two or three" prudent additions aimed at complementing the team's youth movement, according to majority owner Ted Leonsis.

"We'll spend a little bit more," Leonsis said yesterday in the hallway near the Capitals' locker room at Verizon Center. "I'm still more interested in building from within. I saw what happened when I got some free agents this year."

Leonsis was likely referring to 36-year-old Andrew Cassels, who was signed to a $1.5 million contract in August. Cassels struggled to get up to speed in the new NHL and abruptly left the team in January after scoring just four goals in 31 games.

The Capitals learned a lot from that mistake, Leonsis said.

"I'm more interested in free agency as the players get a little younger, as time marches on," he said. "I want to plug them in as we're on this upclimb, someone who has been in the league four or five years, his best years are still in front of them."

The Capitals' salary cap figure (including all scheduled bonuses) has hovered around $26 million this season, comfortably above the minimum but about $13 million below the limit. They'll likely add to that during the offseason, with a pair of quality defensemen and a first-line center to play alongside Alex Ovechkin atop their shopping list. Leonsis also said he is hopeful the additions will include talented but enigmatic left wing Alexander Semin, who is under contract to the Capitals but has refused to return from Russia.

"I think our fans can expect from us incremental improvement, and more and more investing until we get to be a team to be reckoned with," Leonsis said. "When [General Manager George McPhee] feels we should be bringing someone in who will get us to that next step, we will. But next year will be only the second year of the rebuild. So I wouldn't expect big, dramatic things. That would be against our strategy."

The organization's strategy of building a contender through the draft, similar to the blueprint followed by the Ottawa Senators in the late 1990s, has not been altered by the play of Ovechkin, who, at 20 years old, already is among the NHL's best players. He enters tonight's game against the Buffalo Sabres near the league lead in goals (42) and points (79).

"Ovechkin has been as good or better than we had expected," Leonsis said of the team's No. 1 overall draft pick in 2004. "You can have great talent, but to be a player everyone wants to be around and feed off of, that's something special. We have maybe the most exciting player to enter the NHL in 20 years, and he's only going to get better. He wants to be here and we want to build around him. But he knows there is no wave a magic wand and bring players in."

Overall, Leonsis said the first year of the rebuilding process "has gone right to plan," pointing to the team's 3-2-2 record since the Olympic break as evidence of progress. He also singled out the emergence of 25-year-old left wing Matt Pettinger, who has more than doubled his career high for goals, as an example of building from within the organization.

"If you would have told me that Matt Pettinger would have had as many goals as Peter Bondra," Leonsis said, referring to the franchise's leader in goals and points who turned down the Capitals' offer to sign with Atlanta. Both players have 16 goals, but Bondra has played in 11 fewer games.

Economically, the Capitals are getting closer to being a "good model," despite lagging fan support.

"We'll get some form of payment from the NHL this year," Leonsis said, referring to revenue sharing. "From a business standpoint, we're getting closer to a good model. Even though we are going to lose a little bit of money this year, I think what we'll do is, any increase in ticket sales, we'll plow back into the team.

"We signed up for this rebuilding and I would say we are following our plan."

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