The Washington Capitals faced myriad problems coming off last season's struggles, most of which were given ample attention at the NHL level. But the club also needed an overhaul in the minor leagues. The primary affiliate in Portland, Maine, was a strength much of this decade, but struggled mightily last season.

Not only were there few prospects off the ice, but the team also was less than competitive, going 23-50-7 last season as the Chicago Blackhawks shared the affiliate with the Capitals. The team finished in last place in the Atlantic Division and missed the postseason. The Pirates have spent most of this season atop the New England Division and are again grooming prospects.

"The organization has shown a great commitment to us," said Mark Kumpel, the Pirates' assistant coach. "They signed some young players and middle-age guys, and the veterans are really great all-around solid guys. They help create a winning atmosphere and are great teachers with the kids. We're back to having a good hockey team here. Every night we go in and can expect to have a good chance of winning the game."

Winning hockey games is great, but the primary reason for having an American Hockey League affiliate is player development, and that is again a strong suit. Right wing Alexandre Volchkov, the fourth player taken in the 1996 draft, looked like a disappointment, playing sloppy and uninterested hockey in his first two professional seasons. He has turned it around this season.

"Volchkov made a commitment this year to play," Kumpel said. "He decided it was time to play, and he's worked hard and played hard. And he's made a commitment not only to play, but to be a part of the team; he's functioning well within the framework of the team and broken out of his shell a little bit. You can hear his voice in the locker room and he's really trying to become a regular member of the team, and he has."

Winger Miika Elomo, the 23rd overall pick in 1995, also was ill-prepared for North American professional hockey. He was sent to Finland to improve his development--the Capitals readily admit they rushed him--but at 22 he already has shown he can thrive at the AHL level and has NHL potential.

Volchkov, Elomo and Pirates goalie Martin Brochu were selected to play in the AHL All-Star Game.

"He needs some seasoning but you can see the upside of being an NHL player down the road," Kumpel said of Elomo. "He competes very well, has decent size and he's not afraid of the physical game. . . . Miika has shown some great tendencies to battle and work hard and has an offensive upside."

Faceoff Against Devils?

Center Jan Bulis (groin injury) did not play tonight against the New York Rangers. He has not skated the past few days but could play Saturday in New Jersey.