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  La Canfora: A Healthy Caps Team Could Contend

Capitals Logo Jason La Canfora, The Post's Capitals beat writer, in an online discussion Friday, Oct. 1, said that the Capitals have the talent to contend for the division title if they can stay healthy. La Canfora also discussed George McPhee's suspension and fine for his run-in with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Bethesda, MD: While I think the suspension for McPhee was clearly appropriate – you can't have someone going into a locker room after a game to start something – I am disappointed that the Blackhawks didn't get punished for their thuggery.

Why did the league turn a blind eye to the Blackhawks' tactics? If what Wilbon wrote is right, it must be dealt with. It's one thing to play physical and hard, it's another thing to goon it up, which is what the Blackhawks seem to be doing.

Jason La Canfora: I agree that Geroge was treated too harshly by the NHL. They definitely made an exmple out of him. Many GMs were hoping the Blackhawks would get at least a slap on the wrist, but the NHL felt McPhee was responsible for the altercation and, in essence, threw the first punch. So he took the fall. I love physical hockey and a fight between two equals, but there's an unwritten code of conduct for using enforcers and Chicago was not following it.

Falls Church, VA: The Hockey News preseason picks have the Capitals finishing out of the playoffs again. Based on your observations and the Capitals staying healthy, how do you think they will finish?

Jason La Canfora: I think the Caps have a strong chance to win the division. Health, as always, is a big issue, and the development of Yogi, Bulis, Zednik will be crucial. They have good depth on defense and if a few players pop in 20 goals (Konowalchuk, Black and the youngsters) they will be in good shape.

Baltimore: Let's face it... we need offense. The players we have right now just don't cut it; nor does anyone in our system. When do we push forth and either make a deal or sign a free agent to puck the biscuit in the basket?

Jason La Canfora: In good time. Right now the team has to evaluate what certain players are capable of when healthy. By the March trade deadline the picture should be clearer. The tema will be prudent throwing cash around until a strong run at the Cup is near - they can no longer trade prospects for veterans when the team isn't a legit contender. If things go bad, guys like Adam Oates, Joe Reekie and Calle Johansson - unrestricted free agents at season's end - could be moved for top prospects/ draft picks. There is a strong push for youth and speed.

Burke, VA: What's your opinion on the Rangers' spending spree -Fleury, et al-? Do you think that if they'd spent this money last March, Gretz would have played another year?

Jason La Canfora: I'll answer the Gretz part first. Wayne knew the team was going to go bonkers on free agents. It wasn;t about that - he just felt the time was right and he wanted to be remembered as a true legend, a star until the very end. The Rangers wil be improved but I don;t think they are a lock for the playoffs. They added lots of bodies, but still alck a true No. 2 center and depth on defense. Of course, they might alwasy go out and buy those type of players as the season goes on - guys like Joe Juneau and Pat Verbeek are still unsigned.

Pasadena, MD: Last year there was talk of the Cap's practice facility being moved from Piney Orchard but this year there has been no mention. Is this going to happen, and, if it is, where to and when?

Jason La Canfora: The team is analyzing different sites but there are lots of unsettleed issued (funding, location, building time) The estimate is it will take 9 months to construct such a facility and Bethesda, Tysons Corner and Alexandria are being considered. The original hope was to have the facility ready for next season's training camp, but that doesn't seem as likely now. I'll keep you posted.

Washington DC: How old were you when you saw your first hockey game?

Jason La Canfora: I was probably about five years old. I grew up in Baltimore and used to go to Clippers games before the team became the Skipjacks and moved into the AHL. I always loved the game and was a huge Caps fan as a kid.

Denver, CO: Why are the Caps the least physical team in the league behind Pittsburgh and Ottawa? Though Ottawa did well last yr in the reg. season, they paid for their lack of grit against the tougher teams in the playoffs. McPhee may believe this league is moving away from physical play, but that's a foolish assumption. Dallas and Buffalo both had very physical teams. Our opening day roster has TWO physical players - witt and simon - the more successful teams have between 10 and 14 physical players.

Jason La Canfora: The team really feels they had to get quicker and more skilled. They realize they need to be physical, but that doesn't alwasy mean dropping the gloves. Everyone has to play the body and guys like Joe Reekie will have to punish people in front of the net. It's tough for teams to carry too many goons and most of the time they don' tplay in key games anyway (gusy like Scott Parker and Tony Twist are factors in the post-season for the most part). It's become obvious teams will challenge the Caps; they have to respond to earn respect.

Rockville, MD: It is no secret how Capitals fans feel about Susan O'Malley. When Ted Leonsis talks about the past, he usually praises Abe Pollin for being a good man, but I have never heard Leonsis, McPhee, et al mention O'Malley's name. Do they feel the same way the fans do and are just keeping mum to be diplomatic?

Jason La Canfora: I'll put it this way - there was definitely a changing of the guard with the Caps, and a new approach being taken throughout the entire organization. The marketing and business sides are being run differently than ever before and there is cause to be optimistic that the club will gain a bigger share of attention in the area.

Arlington: Some weeks ago, Wilson was quoted in the Post as saying the Caps would be playing the left-wing lock this season. If that's the case, what was Steve Konowalchuk doing in the crease in the Chicago game when he got belted by Manson? Has this experiment been put in the circular file?

Jason La Canfora: Don't read too much into that. That game was a joke and no one was playing a system. Wilson was flopping lines like crazy trying not to get guys hurt and avoiding certain matchups. It wasn't a hockey game. The teamm will use a few different forechecking patterns all with the intent of pressuring the D deep, forcing them to a wing and eliminating the center of the ice.

Arlington, VA.: jason - no offense, but Rachel is more attractive.

Anyway, which of the "Heralded Young Speedsters" of the Caps - Zed, Yogi, Bulis - is going to step it up this season?

Jason La Canfora: Non taken. I'd have to agree with you on that one. I have gut feeling that Zednik will pop in 25-30 goals (though I felt the same way last season). Yogi seemd a little frustrated during the pre-season. Ron Wilson wants to see more consistency from Bulis, but every scout who saw him play in junior raves about him beign the total package. He could be a No. 1 center, but it takes time.

Seabrook, MD: Jason, you've done an outstanding job so far...please keep it up. I have a question about the ice surface...has anything been done to improve it so far?

Jason La Canfora: That's for your kinds words. I really appreciate it. As for the ice surface, there's not too much you can do with a multi-purpose facility. The best ice in the league - Edmonton, Calgary - is in arenas used for nothing but hockey. Putting the floor down kills the ice, as does the heat, but there's only so much you can do. The new owners are looking into every detail that can be improved, so if they feel new compressors will help (or anything else for that matter) I'm sure they'd give it a shot.

Evanston, IL: Jason–This is your first year on the beat and I'm curious what it's like to step in and cover a new team.

Jason La Canfora: It's alwaays a challenge to meet a new group of players and management and just kind of leanr your way around, but I grew up with the team, which makes it easier. And they're a great group of guys, from Ted Leonsis and Jon Ledecky through the trainers and equipment guys. Hockey players are the best athletes to deal with, by far.

Gaithersburg, MD: Is there anything special planned for Dale Hunter at the Caps' home opener? Will his jersey be retired?

Jason La Canfora: Good question. The team is being pretty tight lipped about the specifics of opening night, but it seems only logical they would honor Dale in some way, and no one is wearing No. 32 right no so ...

Ft. Belvoir: Which of the younger players looked the most promising at training camp this season? Which did not have a good camp?

Jason La Canfora: The 1999 draft class was very impressive. I was a little skeptical at first that Kris Beech and Michal Sivek would be able to hold up physically with the big boys, but they were great. A lot can happen between now and next September, and putting expectations on 18-year-olds is alwasy a crap shoot, but I think one of them will stick net season, maybe both. As for younger guys, I think Caps fans will quickly take to rookies Jeff Halpern and Glen Metroploit. They are great guys and lots of fun to watch. Jeff Toms also was quite good - much better speed than you would think for a guy that size - and forced his way onto the team. It alwasy takes big guys longer to develop, so you never know, he could breakout thsi season.

Washington, DC: What is the general attitude of Caps' management toward Alexandre Volchkov? Do you think he still has a chance to be an NHL player

Jason La Canfora: He went a long way to getting back in theri good graces with his preseason play. He's had problems on and off the ice, and was basically an afterthought heading into camp, but now will probably get re-called a few times in the season and will have a chance to show what he can do in the NHL. But the team is also hesitant to be too easily seduced by one training camp becasue of Volchkov's underachieving ways the last two seasons. He certainly has incredible talent and all the gifts to be a player, but the mental aspect means everything at the NHL level. You can't compensate for determination and motivation.

Fairfax, VA: All I've been hearing lately is how great a player Pavel Bure is and how much excitement he brings to the game. Yet, Peter Bondra has consistently outscored him over the last five years, is faster and in my mind can be just as exciting. Why do feel Bondra gets so little respect throughout the league?

Jason La Canfora: Pavel Bure became a star in Vancouver, and the Canadian media can help build a player. He also had a tremendous playoff in 1994, leading his team to the finals, and that is where stars are made. Peter doesn't get the exposure or endorements that Bure does, and advertisers seem to flock to Bure's boyish good looks. Both players are dynamic talents, and, if the Capitals are success in their marketing and advertising campaigns, Peter could become recognized as well.

McLean, VA: Jason,

Do you think Olie's Stanley Cup year performance was just a "Flash in the pan"? Or do you think that he still has the potential to be a great goaltender?

Jason La Canfora: Olaf Kolzig has all the tools to be a top flight NHL goalie and it's tough to think anyone could play as stellar as he did in 1998-99 (the entire season, not just post-season) and not be a great goalie. He may never be as unbeatable as he was in the playoff run, but he still has the potential to outplay any goalie in a playoff series. He should get more help from a healhy defense this season as well. He's the last line of defense, but can't be the only one.

Fairfax, Va: Is it fair to say that the rest of NHL might be running hard at the Blackhawks this season? They have already instigated against four teams...

Jason La Canfora: I kind of doubt it, becaseu if anything they got off easy in Gary Bettman's ruling on Thursday. Sure, they will be watched closely, but Dave Manson only got one game for attempting to injure Steve Konowalchuk.

Seabrook,MD: Just read that Byron Dafoe has demanded a trade...any ideas for a destination?

Jason La Canfora: It's becoem pretty commonplace for restricted free agents to demand a trade when negotiations stall. Generally, it's just words. Teams have most of the leverage with these guys and demanding a trade is a way to put heat on the team and try to win the PR war with the fans. I don't see Harry Sinden dealing his goalie. If antyhing, the hardline Bruins will let Dafoe sit and figure once he gets tired of losing paychecks he'll lower his demands and sign a deal.

Arlington, Va.: Ottawa, Boston, and Carolina – all Eastern Conference playoff teams last season – have been weakened by high-profile contract disputes. To what degree will each of those teams suffer as a result of off-ice problems, and to what extent will those problems help the Caps?

Jason La Canfora: It's tough to say until we get deeper into the season. If Yashin, Dafoe and Primeau are all un-signed come Christmas, their teams could be in trouble (but, then, that's usually when these kinds of things get settled). I think Carolina has much less depth that the other teams, and , entering a new arena and new market, need the best player on the ice. I don't think the Hurricanes will duplicate what they did last season. Ottawa will be hard pressed to do so as well (I don't see Tugnutt having the best GAA in hockey again) and Boston is my early pick to make the finals.

Rockville, Maryland: What will Yogi Svejkovsky's role be this year? Is he ready to be on the first line with Bondra and Oates?

Jason La Canfora: Yogi spent the entire preseason skating with Andrei Nikolishin and James Black (basically the third line, for lack of a better word). Yogi was drafted for his offensive prowess and the expectation is that Nikolishin will be setting up his wingers. Black quietly had a great camp and there's hope he can score 20 goals playing a full season with the Caps.

Herndon VA: More a comment....
As a way for fans to show their support -for Mr McPhee & the organization-, Ask fans coming to opening night to give a dollar -20k- which could be given to a local charity. Why do the Capitals always pay the big penalty in the NHL? I have been a fan since the start and this is outrageous!

Jason La Canfora: I guess you're refering to the Dale Hunter suspension for hitting Turgeon, eh? Maybe it's a coincidence or maybe it's a plot by the league. Just kidding. But you make a good point, seems like two Caps were used to send a message to everyone else, though both men did do things out of the ordianry to merit discipline.

Furnace Mountain, Va.: Dale Hunter and his toughness, desire and work ethic - which provided such a great role model for the team - is gone. Who will take up his role of leading by example? Also, what type of leadership will new team captain Adam Oates provide to the team? Thanks.

Jason La Canfora: The teams lost a big veteran presence in the room (Hunter, Berube, Tinordi, Miller) and that's something you can't really measure. Oates, like Hunter, is a quiet leader. He won't be giving any ''win one for the Gipper'' speeches. The team is also hoping guys from their young nucleus (Chris Simon, Konowalchuk, Brendan Witt) assume more leadership duties.

Seabrook,MD: Last year when the season started the refs were very vigilant in calling obstruction and the games were outstanding to watch, but as the season wore on that got less and less until near the end it was as bad as ever. whats gonna happen this year?

Jason La Canfora: That's pretty much the way it goes with obstruction. Whether you liek the crack down or not, once the playoffs get near you see fewer calls made and refs want to let the teams decide the outcome onthe ice, not in the penalty box. The big problem with the rule is different officals see and call it differently, so you have to know which refs will whistle you for the slightest pull, and which guys will let a lot of that stuff go.

Centreville Va.: Someone mentioned health earlier..How is the team in reguards to last years injuries? Anyone playing hurt that could become a factor in the future or is everyone completely healed. And welcome to the caps...

Jason La Canfora: So far, knock on wood, the team is 100 percent healthy, save for minor leaguer Trevor Halverson, who got a concussion in a fight last Saturday. No one is nursing any serious nagging injuries and if that continue it would be a huge boost to the organization.

Manassas, Va: Will the Caps fall back on dump and run hockey, or play the neutral ice with a lot of forechecking? They have the speed and the size now.

Jason La Canfora: You will see them trap more early in the season as youngsters find their way in the NHL. The team will also take fewer gambles until players fidn their scoring touch and develop confidence to put the puck in the net at this level. The hope is to be a quick team that forechecks hard and aggresively with two forwards and thrives on the transition game.

Middletown, CT: Jason -

I am a Red Wings fan. I have enjoyed reading your coverage of the Wings in the Detroit Free Press.
How come you now cover the Capitals for the Washington Post?
What made you leave Detroit?

Jason La Canfora: Thanks for noticing. I left the Freep for a few reasons. I grew up in Baltimore, so I got the chance to come home and the Post is a tremendous paper. It was a great opportunity for me persoanlly and professionally. Eventiually DC might become more of a Hockeytown, though I don't think it will ever come close to Detroit in that area.

Fairfax, Va: In your opinion who the toughest player on the Caps?

Jason La Canfora: That's tough to measure. The beating hockey player take on a regualr basis, their desire to play through incredible pain and their love of the game sets them apart from just about everyone else. You have to be pretty tough just to make it this far. In terms of physical play and intimidation, winger Chris Simon was recognized as one of the best fighters in the league before shoulder surgery limited him from doing much of that the last two seasons. Defenseman Brendan Witt is one of the up and coming heavyweights and loves to play fierce, physical hockey. Thanks, Jason, for spending time with us today and taking so many questions. Jason has agreed to be a frequent guest on Sports Online now that the season is about to begin.

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