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  Alexander Discusses the Capitals and the NHL

Capitals Logo Rachel Alexander, The Post's beat writer for the Capitals and NHL was our guest on Sports Online on Tuesday, April 27. Alexander discussed the fall of the Capitals and the current state of the NHL. The transcript of the discussion follows.

Frederick, MD: Is this a quick fix? Is it a case where the Caps had key injuries and were really a better team than they put on the ice this season? Or are we in for a youth movement -which with the trade of Hunter, and releasing of Miller and Pivonka, it would seem- and a couple years of rebuilding?

Last year at this time, Ollie was a brick wall, Bondra and Zednik were incredible out there, getting odd-man rushes and breakaways. Was the loss of Tikkanen that big? What happened between June last year, and October this year to make them go from so good to so bad?

Rachel Alexander: Hey everybody. Thanks for the patience with all of our computer problems.

As for the Caps, whose technical difficulties cannot be solved so easily, I think there were a lot of different things that went wrong this season. First, of course, is the injuries. This is the fourth straight year Washington has had such massive problems, and every season they seem to get worse. Adam Oates' absence for two months near the beginning of the season hurt the team a lot, especially when Washington was having so much trouble scoring. The loss of the young players (Zednik, Svejkovsky, Bulis) also near the beginning of the season hurt too, because it is your young guys who are supposed to carry you through Oct., Nov. and Dec., especially when your veterans are tired from a long playoff run.

Injuries aren't the whole story, though. Last season, the players went through adversity and reacted well to it. This season they did not. When they absolutely had to come up with a victory, they didn't, and at times their confidence seemed shaky. They lost games on late goals a lot; they were scored upon early quite often. And while goaltending was not Washington's main problem, neither Olie Kolzig nor Rick Tabaracci was stealing games the way Kolzig did with such regularity last season.

McLean, VA: What do you think it will take to make D.C. more of a "hockey town" like Detroit or New York – or am I asking for too much?

Rachel Alexander: Before last season, I would have said that a strong playoff performance was all that was necessary to make Washington a hockey town. I was working in South Florida in 1995-96, when the Panthers had problems drawing crowds. They had a lot of empty seats even through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but by the conference finals it was crazy down there. By the time Florida was swept by Colorado in the Cup finals, the Panthers logo and colors were every year. Even though the team lost the Cup, they sold out the next season.

That didn't happen in Washington. Interest in the Caps certainly peaked during the Cup run, but you never got the feeling it was the most important thing in the city. And even at the beginning of this season, when expectations were still high, the Caps reported increases in some of their partial-season ticket plans, but not in their full season-ticket plans.

So will Washington ever be a hockey town? Perhaps if the Capitals have success over a few years, not just once. The team will also have to decide to make more of a marketing effort, because the town does not seem predisposed to the sport.

Blacksburg, VA: How come everyone "in the know" disregarded the Carolina Hurricanes on their way into the playoffs? Even considering the parity in the East, the conventional wisdom had Boston winning in 5 or 6 games, but lo and behold, Carolina's up 2 games to 1 and looking awfully tough.

Rachel Alexander: There's no question the Hurricanes are a weak No. 3 seed just because of their regular-season record, which would actually make them the No. 8 seed if the seedings were strictly done according to the records. That being said, the advantage of being seeded No. 3 (thanks to being the Southeast Division winner) is that you play the No. 6 team instead of a tougher opponent.

Boston has had great goaltending from Byron Dafoe all season, but the Bruins still have some holes. Carolina has also had great goaltending from Arturs Irbe, and sometimes a series like this comes down to goaltending. The Hurricanes also have their problems, however -- their power play has been weak all season -- and a 2-1 series lead is not a lock.

I don't think the Hurricanes should be disregarded at all, but I wouldn't count Bruins Coach Pat Burns out either until the final horn.

Alexandria, VA: During an interview three weeks ago, Abe Pollin stated that George McPhee could sign any player he wished without regard for what it would cost financially. I've always felt that the Caps' never really had the ability to sign the higher end players because of Abe's tight pocket book. Give us your honest opinion on this topic

Rachel Alexander: Abe Pollin has said this a few times in recent seasons, and the Capitals payroll has been in the top third of the league. You can't call someone tight-fisted when that happens. I certainly wouldn't call Pollin free-wheeling either, however. Detroit, Dallas, and Philadelphia have been throwing money around; the Caps don't. There's no question money is a concern for a franchise that lost an estimated $20 million this season.

George McPhee said he will look to the free agent market this summer for a player who "makes sense." That means Mark Recchi and Theo Fleury are not options, because their salary demands would throw off the team's payscale, McPhee said. Don't expect anyone very high-profile, instead look for him to sign someone in the $3 million range.

Money may also become an issue this summer because players like Zednik and Svejkovsky have contracts to be negotiated. The team is going to tell them they haven't played enough to get big, big raises, but of course they are going to want them.

Burke, VA: What's the general mood of the team these days, considering all of the recent changes?

Rachel Alexander: I think the players are disappointed, although the real depressing part of the season was right before and after the trade deadline. Once they accepted that they were not going to make the playoffs and mourned for that lost opportunity, they began looking toward next season.

Guys have said that it's hard again right now, when teams they feel they are better than are still playing, but they also admit that those teams deserve to be there, and they don't.

Alexandria, VA: Will the Caps keep Brian Bellows?

Rachel Alexander: I'm not sure they know the answer to that one yet. Brian was a key member of their Stanley Cup run, and he played well again this season, especially in the second half. He's one of the few players willing to go to the net to score, and he likes working with the young guys on the team. Coach Ron Wilson also points out that he's one of the few vocal guys in the locker room, something no successful team is without.

All of that being said, Brian isn't as young as he used to be. And while he's younger than a guy like Oates, his style of play over the years has been much more punishing. I think Caps management is looking to talk to Brian as they fill out their roster, but they also want to take a look around. If they find someone else who can do what he does but with younger legs, they'll take him instead, but that won't be an easy thing to find.

Fairfax, Virginia: Any predictions on who will win the Stanley Cup?

Rachel Alexander: Obviously you have to be impressed with Detroit, and Dallas and Colorado are also still favorites. While the East has no such hot contender, it will be such a battle to get out of the West that whoever does survive the conference finals may be tired and banged up once getting to the Cup finals. That doesn't mean they'll lose, but perhaps the NHL will be able to avoid another finals sweep.

Also watch out for the Sabres. As we've seen with Ottawa, when Hasek is hot, he takes away more than goals. He saps the other team's confidence in itself so the players feel beaten before they step onto the ice.

Paris, France (16-year Washingtonian until last November): Young players like Baumgartner and others, have not developed as fast as thought. Will the Capitals give them a decent chance, or will they spend enough money to get a "name" ?

Rachel Alexander: Anyone following the Capitals' minor-league players from Paris deserves a special commendation from the Portland Pirates! As for Baumgartner, he has had a lot of injury problems, but his overall development has been disappointing. Other young players, like Alex Volchkov, have had even more problems.

George McPhee and Ron Wilson said several times at the end of this season that they had "nothing in the tank" at the minor-league level. Wilson pointed out that the Caps' American Hockey League team was in last place, so how did Washington expect guys from that team to come help at an NHL level? To fix what they see as a major problem, the Caps will rely on this year's draft. The players drafted probably won't be able to help the Caps next season, but they will help replenish the system.

As for next season, the Caps like what they see in Tezikov, the young defenseman acquired from Buffalo in the Joe Juneau deal. McPhee had planned to leave him in the minors for one more year, but Tezikov did so well in the team's last few games this year that you might see him in Washington uniform in October.

Queens, New York: What are your thoughts on Reggie White's loudly-voiced opinion that female reporters not be allowed into locker rooms?

Rachel Alexander: I don't agree with a lot of things Reggie White has said in recent years. His statements to the Wisconsin legislature regarding minorities, including his own, were atrocious. I don't expect him to be any more enlightened when it comes to women.

Kalamazoo, MI: What will it take for the Capitals to become competitive again? Is it a pipe dream to hope for this in the next 5 years?

Rachel Alexander: I don't think that's a pipe dream at all. They still have the core of a very complete team there: Bondra, Kolzig, Oates, Gonchar, Konowalchuk, Zednik, Bulis, Reekie, etc. They must get healthier, and they believe that some changes to their offseason training regimen may help in that area. They also have to be a more focused team than they were this season, but I think the long summer and the bitter taste of this season will help there.

Laruel, Maryland: Baltimore is thinking of updating and building a new facility in Balitmore to attract a new NHL team. What do you think the reaction of the Capitals management will be to establishing an NHL franchise in Baltimore?

Rachel Alexander: I can't see the NHL putting a team in Baltimore when there are so many empty seats at Caps games. If that was ever considered, I'm sure the Caps would fight it (much like Orioles owner Peter Angelos is against putting a baseball team in Washington), but again, I really don't see the NHL allowing Baltimore to have its own team right now.

Personally, I don't think the NHL should consider expanding at all right now (they may have already overextended themselves with the impending franchise in Ohio, etc.). But if the league does go anywhere else, look for a team to be located in the Pacific Northwest somewhere, like Seattle or Portland.

Beltsville, MD: Do you think the Capitals should fire Ron Wilson?

Rachel Alexander: No, I don't think you can point to coaching as the reason the Caps didn't go far this year. As I said earlier in the chat, there were a lot of other reasons the season went so poorly.

That being said, Wilson has said he believes he'll do some things differently next season in an effort to avoid such a collapse. A good coach learns from his mistakes. Let's see if he does.

Austin, TX: Pollin has stated that the Caps have lost $20 million this season. How in the world was that calculated? With the revenue that the Caps bring in, I find this absurd.

Rachel Alexander: There's no question that's a spongy figure, especially since the Caps don't open their books to the public. How much of that total includes all the revenue brought in from the MCI Center? How much of it includes losses by the Wizards? The Capitals won't say.

We do know the team is worried about its finances. Payroll may be cut next season, and season ticket prices were cut. No team cuts ticket prices if people are buying's when people aren't buying your product that you cut the price. So while $20 million may be a questionable figure, there's definitely some substantial losses there.

Washington DC: Why do NHL players have such a problem with mouth guards? For about $20 you can get a very small guard that still allows you to talk while on the ice, and they're excellent protection against the rash of concussions in the league. Is it just a tough-guy image thing, or something else?

Rachel Alexander: Some guys just don't like to wear them -- they say they can't breathe well when playing. Of course, the guys who are used to them say they can breathe fine, so I think it's just a matter of what you grew up with. The same goes with helmets. There are still guys wearing paper-thin helmets, even though it's not safe, because that's what they grew up with. Unfortunately for them, a few concussions later, it's more than just your equipment that doesn't feel exactly right.

Bethesda MD: Since last season was so much more extended than usual for the Caps, Olympic break and the extended post season, do you think that a lot of the prolonged injuries and their lack of energy were due to the length of the off season which was shortened by at least 6 weeks compared to past seasons?

Rachel Alexander: I think the short summer did affect the Caps, more so than the Red Wings because the Red Wings were used to it. Some of the players have said they didn't feel as mentally prepared for this season as they have in the past -- that they were just tired and worn. Others had problems gearing up their physical conditioning as well as they usually do.

Of course, the better a team you are, the shorter summers you have to deal with, so it's a good thing to learn how to handle. I think the Caps learned a lesson on that front last summer, and if they are in that position again in the next few years you won't see as much of a drop.

I think our time is up, but thanks again for everyone's computer patience, and enjoy the playoffs.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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