By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007
The Washington Capitals' 2-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres yesterday afternoon marked the end of a third consecutive season with no playoffs -- and ushered in a critical offseason for the rebuilding franchise.
The club's immediate and long-term future, indeed, could be determined by what transpires in the coming months, beginning with the entry draft in June and continuing through the free agent signing period. Four or more new faces might be added to the league's youngest lineup, which is anchored by cornerstone forwards Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig, but lacks depth and experience at other key positions.
"We want to go into the season next year more on an upswing, not with a lot of questions," majority owner Ted Leonsis said in the locker room afterward. "The ownership right now wants to invest. But we want to make sure we spend our money the right way. There is no magic wand, but we are going to be active because there are holes in the lineup."
Those holes were again apparent against the Sabres, who struck twice in the opening 9 minutes 51 seconds and held on behind the stellar goaltending of Ryan Miller (26 saves) to claim the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy, given to the team with the most points in the league. Kolzig, meantime, made 22 stops for the Capitals, who lost seven of their final nine games and finished in the bottom five for the third straight season, meaning they're eligible to win the right to draft first overall. The lottery will be held Tuesday in New York.
Although Leonsis wouldn't divulge exactly how much money he plans to spend this summer, a significant amount would be required to address all of the Capitals' needs. On the shopping list is a veteran center, a right wing and two quality defensemen. That's in addition to signing 2006 draft pick Nicklas Backstrom, who has indicated his desire to play here next season.
"It's going to be a very, very busy summer for the front office," Leonsis added.
General Manager George McPhee, along with his scouting staff, will travel around the world in the coming weeks and months, evaluating junior players, minor leaguers and potential NHL free agents. The challenge, McPhee said, will be to "pick the right players at the right positions."
Current Capitals, such as all-star Ovechkin, are counting on it.
"I think it will be a good summer for us," Ovechkin said this week. "But you don't know who signs, who will come. But I hope. [The fans] hope. Coach hopes. Team guys hope."
Kolzig added: "I'm definitely looking forward to next year, with everything that's being said and with what we have here right now. We have the makings of being very good. We were right there up until Christmas time, which is when our lack of depth really showed. Hopefully next year when guys get hurt they won't be missed as much."
In many ways it was fitting that the season ended with a loss to the Sabres, because the Capitals' collapse began in Buffalo on Dec. 26. They surrendered six goals in the first period at HSBC Arena en route to a decisive defeat. Battling injuries and illness, Washington lost the next four games, and two months later, dealt its first-line center, Dainius Zubrus, to the Sabres at the NHL's trade deadline, an unofficial concession.
Leonsis doesn't anticipate the Capitals will be sellers at the deadline next season.
"I'm very positive," he said. "I'm very upbeat because we know what we have. We have a fine group of young players that are all growing up together. We'll add to the team until we're like Buffalo. Our bar will be raised."
On-ice changes aren't the only thing expected next season. During the first period yesterday, the words "Change is coming summer 2007" flashed on the video screens hanging above center ice. During the promotion, streaks of red, white and blue burst through the current dome logo, a not-so-subtle confirmation of the club's plan to switch back to its former color scheme.
"Next year will be different for us," Ovechkin said. "I hope we don't finish season early. It's frustrating. Next year I hope we have luck and we go to playoffs."
Capitals Notes: Buffalo center Tim Connolly, who had not played since the second round of last season's playoffs because of a concussion and leg injury, scored the Sabres' second goal. . . . Sabres center Daniel Briere was ejected in the third period for spearing defenseman Milan Jurcina during a scrum in front of the Washington net. . . . A large portion of the announced sellout crowd of 18,277 was cheering for the Sabres. . . . Dave Steckel, Mike Green, Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr were sent to Hershey (Pa.) of the American Hockey League after the game.