Occasionally, when Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is answering e-mail from fans, he'll come across a note chastising the team for not spending more money on free agents over the summer. The writer generally points out the following: The Capitals missed the playoffs one year after making the Stanley Cup finals, they sorely need to create awareness and excitement, and the new owners should be making a splash entering their first season.

The fans ask Leonsis: Why haven't you done more?

The answer is a bit more complex than the query. When Leonsis and his partners, Jonathan Ledecky and Dick Patrick, purchased the team from Abe Pollin they knew the franchise was bleeding money, its season ticket base was down to about 6,000 and they were facing a rebuilding process on the ice as well. There were not going to be any quick fixes.

"I can understand that thought process from the fans' perspective," Leonsis said. "If I thought signing a few free agents could fix this, I would write the check and go on vacation. But everything has to be changed. We're trying to re-architect a company and re-architect a team so it can win, and win continually. And we're not even close to being there yet. It's going to be a long, painful process.

"Although, I'll be frank, I've kept some powder dry and we know what we need to do with our team. If we're in a position to make a move and take on a salary to get to another level, we'll do it."

But the Capitals' immediate business plan does not include throwing money at unrestricted free agents, many of whom are declining in skill. They lured Ulf Dahlen out of Sweden and signed former New York Islanders defensive forward Joe Sacco this summer, but that was it.

Instead, the Capitals aim to get younger, relying on prospects such as Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik to help lead its resurgence. They want to maintain a level payroll as the club prospers and add veteran components in a few seasons, when a shot at the Stanley Cup is perhaps more realistic. Leonsis vows to empty his pockets when the time is right.

"There's no question that if some of our young players turn into stars we have the resources to keep them," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. "And when it comes to free agency, if we feel that in March we're close to winning the Cup, then we'll make the moves we need to make. We think we have a good young core of players and this is the time of year to get a look. If you bring in older players above them, and they don't get a chance, then you never know what your players can do for you. There's always some pleasant surprises."

Washington is hardly the only NHL team being prudent with its money. After two summers of wild offers for aging free agents, the market has dried up. Excluding the New York Rangers -- who bid against themselves for free agents Theo Fleury, Valeri Kamensky, Stephane Quintal, Alexei Gusarov and Tim Taylor -- general managers are no longer dropping big cash.

About 70 free agents are unemployed right now, and few teams are expressing interest. Former Capitals Joe Juneau and Mark Tinordi are among them. Others who have signed, such as Detroit's Steve Duchesne and Boston's Dave Andreychuk, have taken steep pay cuts.

Meanwhile, Carolina is sparring with its star player, unsigned restricted free agent Keith Primeau; Ottawa has suspended its top player, Alexei Yashin, who is holding out. Many hockey experts -- agents, owners, players and coaches included -- fear a lengthy labor battle is inevitable when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2004.

"Essentially, right now, hockey is pretty broken as we sit around and watch the union and management fight," Leonsis said. "What's surprised me is there's an awful lot of inward thinking by agents, players and management in the league. Everyone has to do a gut check right now. In essence, these are small businesses, and the league started to pay its players like they are running a big business.

"A lot of teams are losing money, and I think right now everyone is catching their breath. Systematically, if teams continue to do what was going on the last two or three years, there won't be a league, there just won't be. But I think you'll continue to see restraint."

Teams have become justifiably wary of investing large amounts of money in the free agent market. Several recent signings, including Uwe Krupp in Detroit and Gary Suter in San Jose, have bombed because of injuries. Countless others have broken down. Few clubs have benefited from unrestricted free agency, and many have signed players only to buy out their contracts a year or two later.

"How many of the unrestricted free agents really lived up to their billing and made a big difference on their teams?" Detroit General Manager Ken Holland said. "We got into that market the last two summers and it hasn't really worked out. It hasn't worked out for a lot of teams."

The Red Wings, who annually have increased their payroll by $10 million, are in a spending freeze. Carolina owner Peter Karmanos, who signed Detroit's restricted free agent Sergei Fedorov to a six-year, $38 million offer sheet in 1998, is adamant about curtailing spending.

"The money teams were spending were absurd, there's no two ways about it," Karmanos said. "For a long time a lot of owners were loath to talk about the fact they weren't making any money. And if you look at every signing, every increase in payroll was going right over to the debt column.

"We can't spend that kind of money. I think [union chief] Bob Goodenow and the players and the agents have to understand if we work in a partnership everyone will prosper. If they want to play the game that they want to get as much cash as they can and they think we'll keep paying it because we're a bunch of silly billionaires, then we will have a walkout; we will have difficult labor relations. If we can get some union leadership that has some responsibility to its members and to the sport and to the fans, we'll be able to move forward."

Goodenow declined to comment for this story, but the National Hockey League Players' Association maintains owners have driven up salaries by their willingness to spend carelessly. NHL general managers have begun to make unprecedented moves. The Boston Bruins walked away from perennial 70-point player and former Capital Dmitri Khristich when he was awarded $2.8 million by an arbitrator, an NHL first.

Any team could offer Khristich a deal worth at least 80 percent of the $2.8 million figure, but no one has.

"There's been a change, no doubt about it," said former Capitals goalie Mike Liut, now a player agent. "And I'm not surprised. You could see this coming. It's a function of the [collective bargaining agreement]. When you have an agreement kick in you may not know how to deal with it at first. But there's a system of checks and balances and teams find new ways to operate. The pendulum swings one way and back the other way. What we're seeing now is the other side of the pendulum. How far it swings before it goes back the other way, we don't know."

And that swing may come sooner than later. Many agents believe players such as Juneau, Pat Verbeek, Ulf Samuelsson and other unrestricted free agents could get their money in a few months, when injuries mount, teams struggle and general managers begin to feel the heat.

Regardless, the market is being watched as closely as ever. The Capitals hope to have a strong team in place by 2004, perennially challenging for a title. That's when free agency could best benefit them. A work stoppage would be crushing.

"I have hope this is going to be a healthy league," Leonsis said. "I hope that its own antibodies will kick in and things will equalize. I told our guys we're going to run this for the long haul with smart investments. We don't want to spend stupidly. We need to invest so that we get the best returns and can have success and replicate it year after year."

Capitals Notes: Unsigned free agents Zednik and Yogi Svejkovsky remain out of camp. . . . In the name of team unity, Capitals players decided to speak only English at work. Several players have already accrued small fines from the team's mock court.