Longtime Washington Capitals executive and part owner Dick Patrick worked throughout the summer bracing the team's new primary owners for what to expect this season. Ted Leonsis and Jon Ledecky listened intently. They're still listening.
The Capitals reach the midpoint of their first season under the new regime Friday in New Jersey. The team is about where Leonsis and company expected, fighting for one of the final two playoff spots, struggling to find consistent scoring. Making the playoffs remains the goal, something Leonsis believes is possible with the current talent assembled. The owners have learned to hold their emotions in check and live with the countless highs and lows that come with an 82-game season.
Still, they're confident enough in their management team to extend the contracts of General Manager George McPhee and Coach Ron Wilson for one year.
Things are better off the ice as well, Leonsis said. The owners have redesigned the front office, filling out the marketing and communications departments and spending millions on advertising. They have changed the game night presentation and are constantly upgrading their Web site. Leonsis said revenue is up from last season--season tickets sales have increased by more than 70 percent, to more than 7,000, and sales of the 10- and 20-game plans have doubled.
"We had three goals going into the year," Leonsis said. "We're flying a plane and redesigning the plane while it's flying. We have to make playoffs, cut our losses in half and reconnect with our fans. If we did those three things this year we would say we had a successful year. Right now, I think we're on our way to meeting all three of those goals."
Patrick, who has been around hockey all his life, has been a lush source of information for the new owners. He emphasized not getting too high or low and avoiding panic. He stressed the importance of developing the team's youth and is working with the new owners to win back fans who did not make the move from US Airways Arena to MCI Center.
The owners still meet fans at home games, answer hundreds of e-mails personally and work to fix each problem presented to them, however minute. They feel the public response, even when critical, has been positive.
"Most of the e-mails I get say, 'First let me start by saying I really like what you guys are doing,' " Leonsis said. "Then they jump all over us and then they get a follow-up e-mail, and we get one back saying, 'Thanks so much for fixing it.' That's how you reconnect with fans."
It will be difficult to rebuild a fan base without success on the ice. The Capitals enter Friday's game 16-17-7, one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. They have been terrific at home, going 10-4-6 and earning points in 15 of their last 16 games; Washington earned 34 points at home all last season and already has 27 this season. But the team is a woeful 6-13-1 on the road. The Capitals have yet to win three games in a row, but are ahead of last season's pace, when they were 15-22-3 after 40 games and missed the playoffs one season after reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in franchise history.
"I think we're a very fragile team," Leonsis said. "And I think, again, Dick did a great job in telling me that we got old and now we're trying to get young. We're in the middle of that, and the young guys will do great sometimes and other times you want to pull the hair out of your head. That comes with youth and the thing that's important to articulate is we have a plan and the worst thing to do would be to panic and make a stop-gap trade today that would hurt us for the long term."
The Capitals have explored trade possibilities several times this season, hoping to bolster an offense in the bottom five in the NHL. Peter Bondra leads the team with 13 goals, tied with Vancouver for the lowest total to lead a team. But the Canucks have two players with 13 goals. The Capitals were the last team to have two 10-goal scorers and only Bondra and Chris Simon are on pace for 20-goal seasons. Bondra has not scored since Nov. 27, battling knee injuries, but still has three more goals than any teammate. The offense is in need of help, with scoring near record lows the last few seasons, but teams want quality young talent in exchange for a proven scorer. The Capitals have vowed not to deal Bulis, Zednik, or top junior prospects such as Kris Beech or Michal Sivek and Leonsis said it's unlikely the team will make a big move this season.
"We're not going to trade our kids," Leonsis said. "We're not going to respond to e-mails or call-in shows and do something that makes us look good in the Sunday papers and stupid long-term. . . . And there's really no one out there to sign. Everybody says [Ottawa holdout]Alexei Yashin and [Carolina's unsigned restricted free agent] Keith Primeau, but Yahsin's not going anywhere and they want like eight guys for Primeau and the guys they want we like. So there's no easy fix."
However, if the Capitals are in playoff contention when the March 14 trade deadline arrives, Leonsis said he's prepared to take on additional salaries, but not at the expense of youth. It's likely they will add an aging player or two for the stretch run, similar to picking up Brian Bellows and Esa Tikkanen two years ago, giving up only a low-tier minor leaguer or a mid-level draft pick to do so.
Capitals Notes: The Capitals continue to have internal discussion about hosting the 2003 All-Star Game, though sources indicate it is not a priority. The team wants to host the event at some point, but it seems unlikely for several seasons as they focus on improving the club. . . . Bondra skated at Piney Orchard Wednesday for the first time since spraining his knee Jan. 4 and he hopes to play next week.
CAPTION: Capitals, from left, Adam Oates, Peter Bondra and Ken Klee celebrate one of team's 16 victories this season.
CAPTION: Ted Leonsis, left, and Jon Ledecky believe Capitals could achieve their goals this season: to make playoffs, cut losses and reconnect with fans.