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Owner Still Focused On Rebuilding Caps

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

TORONTO, March 5 -- With his Washington Capitals on the verge of missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season, majority owner Ted Leonsis said yesterday that he's disappointed about not contending for a postseason berth but remains committed to a "patient" rebuilding process.

"We couldn't overcome our injuries [and] lack of depth," Leonsis said in an e-mail interview. "And we left way too many points on the table with our lack of success in the shootouts. But I am not disappointed with our rebuild. Personally -- while very competitive in nature -- I knew what I signed up for. I'm patient and plan to see it through its full course."

The past month has been a tumultuous one. The club's already thin lineup has been hurt by injuries to goaltender Olie Kolzig and captain Chris Clark, then was further depleted by the departures of veterans Dainius Zubrus and Richard Zednik and defenseman Jamie Heward at last week's trade deadline. Meantime, the losses have mounted for the Capitals, who find themselves in last place in the Southeast Division, and with a record 1-5-4 in the past 10 games, entering Tuesday's meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Center.

Leonsis defended the trades, which brought prospect Jiri Novotny and first- and second-round draft picks, and expressed optimism about the team's position entering an important offseason for General Manager George McPhee and his hockey operations department.

"We made trades [at the] deadline for hockey reasons -- not financial reasons," Leonsis wrote. "We got picks and young players and more capacity to add the players that the coach and general manager believe can help us improve."

The next phase of the rebuilding process, according to Leonsis, will be to add talent from outside of the organization, whether through free agency or trades this summer. The owner doesn't envision a major shakeup of his club's roster, but he did acknowledge plans to increase the Capitals' payroll, which, at about $31 million, was the lowest in the NHL this season.

"Payroll will be increased," Leonsis said, "as will financial losses. We will fill holes, and add depth and skill, some additional veteran leadership.

"We must keep improving without changing the culture and core of the team that is still young and developing. But it is time now for us to plug the holes in our lineup. We will use all means to improve. We have lots of assets to help us come trade time in offseason."

The Capitals' needs are many. Atop the list are a first-line center to play with all-star left wing Alex Ovechkin, a top pairing defenseman (preferably one who can quarterback the power play) and a skilled right wing. Team officials also are counting on 2006 fourth-overall draft pick Nicklas Backstrom, a 19-year-old currently playing in his native Sweden, to step in as the second-line center.

"We know what we have," Leonsis wrote. "We are pretty happy with a lot of the young players and can add to the group with more confidence since we know what we need. Now we have to execute on the plan."

Capitals Notes: Defenseman Mike Green has been recalled from Hershey (Pa.) of the American Hockey League and is expected to be in the lineup against the Maple Leafs. Demoted Feb. 15, the 21-year-old had two goals and four assists in nine games with the Bears. . . . Clark had hoped to return from a sprained shoulder, but is ill and did not travel to Toronto.

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