John Ziegler, president of the National Hockey League, said yesterday he considers it unlikely that the Washington Capitals would merge with the New Jersey Devils this season.

"People can get together and make whatever kind of deal they want, but it must be approved by the league," Ziegler said, in response to a story in Saturday's editions of the New York Times that said the teams would merge. "I think it's probably made for good reading."

The Times account said Pollin and John McMullen, principal owner of the New Jersey Devils, had acknowledged that merger negotiations had been going on for several weeks.

Pollin said in July that if the club failed to satisfy four conditions -- the sale of 7,500 season tickets, sellouts of the first 10 home games, rent reduction on Capital Centre, and tax relief from Prince George's County -- by Aug. 20, he would sell and move, merge or fold his team.

As of Aug. 20, 10 sellouts and the rent decrease had been achieved, but because the Prince George's County Council will not vote on the tax until Tuesday, the deadline was extended until then. Season ticket sales stand at 5,473.

Pollin said last week the possibility of moving his team intact was slim but insisted the other options were still open.

Neither Pollin nor McMullen could be reached for comment yesterday.

Ziegler has repeatedly stated the NHL's position on the Capitals: the team is obligated to operate this season, the league schedule is based upon the Capitals playing in Washington and that "a merger would be an exhausting, time-consuming task."

Ziegler said he would not be surprised if any number of teams have talked to Pollin. "They've probably said, 'Well, if this doesn't work, let's try something else,' " said Ziegler. "He's keeping his options open.

"But Abe is going after a tax break from the county. Do you think he's going to abandon that idea Monday and merge with New Jersey?"