The Washington Capitals traded team captain Steve Konowalchuk and a third-round pick in the 2004 draft to the Colorado Avalanche last night in exchange for bruising winger Bates Battaglia and the rights to forward Jonas Johansson, who was selected 28th overall by Colorado in the 2002 draft.
The Capitals are winless in five games heading into tonight's contest in Ottawa and have struggled offensively and defensively. Management hopes Battaglia, who has one year and $935,000 left on his contract, can provide many of the same on-ice qualities as Konowalchuk, who will earn $1.575 million this season. Johansson projects to be a high-end forward when he develops in the next few years.
"If your team is not performing well then you have to see if you can change things, hopefully for the better," General Manager George McPhee said. "The key to the trade for us was obviously bringing in a player that is similar to Kono, but a little bit younger. And we picked up a 19-year-old player who was a first-round pick and if he continues to develop will play in our lineup in a few years."
Konowalchuk and McPhee met in the preseason, sources said, and the sides agreed that he would not return to Washington when he becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer given the recent direction of the team; the Capitals have parted with several veterans over the last few years and only Olaf Kolzig, Peter Bondra, Brendan Witt and Sergei Gonchar remain from the 1998 team that reached the Stanley Cup finals.
"I definitely have mixed emotions," Konowalchuk said from his hotel in Ottawa last night. "Right now part of me wants to cry. I've been in Washington almost as long as I've been anywhere in my life and I have a lot of friends in town, not counting the friends I have played with for so long on the team and the training staff. The Capitals have been great to me and I was very fortunate to play for one team for that long. . . .
"On the flip side, I am honored a team that has one goal in mind -- to win a Stanley Cup -- wants me on their team. Everybody in the league knows Colorado is trying to win it all this year."
The Avalanche, which learned yesterday that winger Paul Kariya will be out indefinitely with a sprained right wrist, had been interested in Konowalchuk for months, McPhee said.
Konowalchuk, who will turn 31 next month, has served as team captain since the 2001-02 season; he shared the distinction with defenseman Witt that season and has been the sole captain since. Konowalchuk was drafted 58th overall by Washington in 1991 and has spent all 13 of his NHL seasons with them. He played 693 games for the Capitals, scoring 146 goals and 342 points. He was beloved by his teammates -- they voted him team captain -- and was an upstanding member of the community and tireless worker on the ice, contributing all of the intangibles that coaches covet.
"We're very disappointed to see a guy like that go," Kolzig said. "We're really going to miss him, but I guess that's the nature of the sport."
But the left winger missed almost all of the 2001-02 season because of shoulder surgery and has not been as productive since. Konowalchuk has continued to play a gritty game, but has scored only 17 goals in his last 111 games. Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern and Ulf Dahlen formed a dominant checking line for three years, but the line was not the same after Dahlen's departure in the summer of 2002; it struggled in the playoffs last season and was off to a poor start this season as well, with a collective minus-12 plus-minus ranking and just two even strength goals.
Battaglia, 28, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound left winger, plays similarly to Konowalchuk but has better size. He was traded from Carolina to Colorado late last season and has scored 64 goals and 157 points in 419 NHL games. He was averaging just 11 minutes of ice time a game for the Avalanche, the deepest offensive team in the league, but will likely play a bigger role for Washington, beginning tonight in Ottawa.
"We brought back what in our minds is bigger version of Kono," McPhee said. "Those players have had similar production and Battaglia had a heck of a year two years ago with Carolina went to finals, so we'd like to put him in our lineup and hopefully he can get back to that level of play."
Johansson, 19, spent the first three years of his career playing in Sweden before coming to Canada to play junior hockey, scoring 10 goals and 35 points in 26 games last season. Should the Capitals fail to sign Johansson by the June 2004 cutoff they would receive a second-round pick from Colorado as compensation.
McPhee said: "[Director of amateur scouting] Ross Mahoney told me, 'If we can ever get that kid, take him.' We are really happy to have him. We think he can be a top-six forward."
McPhee will meet with Coach Bruce Cassidy and a small group of players in the next few days to decide who the next team captain should be, while Konowalchuk was set to join Colorado for its game tonight.
"We'll rotate our assistants through the weekend and make a decision on the captaincy next week," McPhee said.