Calle Johansson has spent the last 10 years in Washington establishing himself as one of the NHL's best defensemen. Again a top performer this season, Johansson hopes to stick around the area for a while, and the Capitals hope to keep him, but nothing is certain for the 32-year-old player who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Johansson said he wouldn't mind talking about a contract extension--the Capitals already renegotiated defenseman Joe Reekie's contract last month--and Capitals General Manager George McPhee said he intends to speak to Johansson's agent later this season. There is a possibility a deal could be done before the free agency filing period begins July 1.

"I haven't really thought about it that much," Johansson said. "I have a contract for this season, and I'm planning on playing my contract out and then we'll see what happens. I try not to think about next season. I can't say for sure that I'm going to stay or leave because I don't know.

"I certainly want to keep playing for a while. I love what I'm doing and I love playing here. I really like Washington. I love this area. For me the best scenario would be to stay here. I like it here. I see no reason to change. If it was up to me, I wouldn't change."

The Capitals are thinking similarly. McPhee considers Johansson indispensable and many teams covet the skilled Swede. He makes others around him better and is often paired with a struggling teammate, sacrificing his own statistics to help the team. He has become a pillar of consistency since being acquired from Buffalo in 1989.

"He's an excellent veteran player to have on your squad," McPhee said. "He can play in all kinds of situations, he's a low-maintenance guy and a very, very smart hockey player. He's a real reliable guy and we would like to have him finish his career with the Capitals. We expect him to be able to play another five or six years and I don't know what we'd do without him, to be honest with you."

Wednesday night was typical Johansson.

He and defensive partner Brendan Witt were matched against Dallas's top line--their regular assignment. Johansson played 32 minutes 15 seconds--half the game and more than any other player on either team. He came out of the 2-2 tie a plus-1, despite regularly facing outstanding offensive players such as Mike Modano, Brett Hull and Joe Nieuwendyk. Tonight, with rival Carolina in town, he will see a lot of the Hurricanes' top line--Bates Battaglia, Ron Francis and Sami Kapanen--a unit that has scored 19 goals, 53 points and is a combined plus-33 through 18 games. The rest of the Hurricanes have produced 24 goals, 68 points and are a combined minus-63.

Johansson is a crucial component of the Capitals' penalty-killing unit and anchors the power play, even more so with defenseman Sergei Gonchar out of the lineup. Johansson not only plays more minutes than any other Capital, he arguable plays the most difficult minutes, working when the team is a man down.

Johansson ranks first in franchise history in games played by a defenseman and third in points by a defenseman and captained the Swedish team in the 1998 Winter Olympics. With players contributing well into their thirties these days there's no reason to believe Johansson will slow down any time soon. Making $1.5 million this season, he seems headed for a solid raise even in a climate of reduced spending in the NHL.

"Let's put it this way, I wouldn't be playing if I wasn't happy the way it is right now," Johansson said. "I'm pretty happy with what I make and I can't think of anything else I could do that makes me the kind of money I make right now.

"You look around the league and there are always guys who make more than you who do the same things as you, but if you have a contract you should honor it and be happy with it because you made the choice."

Capitals Notes: Defensemen Gonchar and Alexei Tezikov, both out with muscle problems, did not skate yesterday and Coach Ron Wilson said they are unlikely to play tonight or Saturday in Boston. Defenseman Joe Reekie (bruised foot) did not practice as a precaution but Wilson said he expects the veteran to play tonight. Jamie Huscroft skated a bit before practice and could play this weekend.