Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said last night he was "heartbroken" by the poor attendance for his team's first-round playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning and vowed to alter his high-spending tendencies given the minimal fan support.
The Capitals, who lost the series in six games, announced crowds of over 15,000 for the final two games -- well short of the 18,277 capacity. Leonsis has doubled the payroll to around $50 million in recent seasons but the Capitals still have trouble drawing fans and have yet to win a playoff series since he purchased the team in 1998.
"It's incredibly disappointing to have 14,000 people in the building for the final playoff game," Leonsis said. "So I think the market has spoken and I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investments we're going to make in the team, because the city didn't respond. You cannot have a playoff game with 14,000 people with the kind of marketing and consumer focus that we've had."
Leonsis blamed Washington Sports & Entertainment, which operates MCI Center, for having to play back-to-back playoff games Tuesday and Wednesday nights -- one on Passover -- as well as having to play Easter Sunday. Leonsis also wants to see his team land a better schedule for the entire season; Washington Sports & Entertainment -- which is run by Abe Pollin, who sold the Capitals in 1998 -- regularly books events in October, March and April, forcing the Capitals -- and Pollin's Wizards as well -- into difficult road trips and playoff scheduling conflicts.
"I'm not very happy about the treatment we got from the building," Leonsis said. "I don't like playing back-to-back games and playing on Passover and Easter, and I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen again. The party is kind of over with my turning the other cheek. We need to be treated with respect. Even if we had won our division and had home-ice advantage, we would still have been playing back-to-back, and that's unacceptable."
A spokesman for Pollin did not immediately return a call last night seeking comment.
Leonsis said he has no plans to change his coaching or management team. General Manager George McPhee, hamstrung in his ability to land a much-needed defenseman this season because of a spending cap, has been at the helm since Leonsis took over. Bruce Cassidy, 37, the second-youngest coach in the NHL, had never coached at this level but got the team in the postseason after it missed last season despite the NHL's sixth-highest payroll. Cassidy and McPhee each has a year remaining on his contract, not including options.
"Bruce did a fine job and was very calm when bullets were flying," Leonsis said. "I'm disappointed in the call on too-many-men-on-the-ice [which led to Tampa Bay's series-clinching goal last night], but I think Bruce accorded himself quite well during all the pressure, and I think the [players] like him and respect him and did well for him. . . . I'm sure George would be his harshest critic -- I should have done this, I should have done that. We really worked on [adding to] our offense and to score one goal on 62 shots today, I don't think that went into the game plan, but it is what it is."
The Capitals added a bevy of offensive players under Leonsis, who gave Jaromir Jagr a seven-year, $78 million contract extension in 2001. Jagr, however, scored four of his seven playoff points in one game. Robert Lang, who signed a franchise-high, five-year, $25 million free agent contract last summer, scored twice in the opening game and never again. Tampa Bay's top line, meantime, lifted its team out of a 2-0 series deficit with no help or scoring balance.
"Their star players played better than our stars, and in a long series that's what you need," Leonsis said. "I thought our goaltending was terrific and Peter Bondra played his heart out, but we had a couple of guys who, for whatever reason, weren't able to get over the hump. But you have to look at these investments over a period of time, not in the short term."
Leonsis will have several difficult personnel decisions to make this summer. Bondra's $4.75 million contract option will be exercised, sources said, but potential unrestricted free agent Sergei Berezin is not likely to be signed.
Should center Michael Nylander become an unrestricted free agent -- his status will be determined when the NHL's average salary is computed in June -- he might be deemed too pricey. Defenseman Ken Klee is seeking $3.25 million a season on a four-year deal, while Washington offered him $2 million a season. That gap could result in him departing via free agency.