The Washington Capitals continued to slash salaries Friday, sending Robert Lang, the NHL's leading scorer, to Detroit for a teenager and two draft picks.
Lang, 33, was one of the only bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for Washington but was traded for 19-year-old winger Tomas Fleischmann, a first-round pick in the 2004 draft and a fourth-round pick in 2006.
Lang was traded prior to Washington's 4-1 win against the Florida Panthers at Office Depot Center, a game in which star defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who sources said is very close to being dealt, did not play with what the team called the flu. The sources said Gonchar was feeling groggy after being hit hard Wednesday and that he and the team reached a mutual decision to rest him as a precaution, not wanting to risk injury with a trade, likely to Toronto, possibly before Saturday's game in Tampa Bay. That deal could also include goalie Olaf Kolzig.
Lang was the only premier free agent to come to Washington -- he signed a five-year, $25 million deal in the summer of 2002 -- but by last August the Capitals were shopping him to Detroit with team owner Ted Leonsis committed to cutting payroll and the Red Wings seeking a replacement for departed center Sergei Fedorov.
Washington's remaining core veterans -- career Capitals Kolzig, Brendan Witt and Gonchar -- expect to be dealt before the March 9 trade deadline, joining forwards Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr and Steve Konowalchuk as key departures this season. Lang made no secret he was eager to leave with a long rebuilding process looming in Washington.
"I am excited to be going to a team that is highly competitive and in the hunt for the championship every year," Lang said. "I'm thrilled about that and looking forward to it. If you watch what has been going on [in Washington], it was just a matter of time before this happened, and I know that a couple of other guys are probably thinking, 'I'll be next.' I just hope that everybody gets their wish, and it works out for everybody."
General Manager George McPhee said recently that Lang's salary was not considered prohibitive, even with a salary cap perhaps on the horizon, but several sources said the $15 million left on his contract was the impetus for the trade. Lang is on 95-point pace, yet the Red Wings did not have to trade anyone from their current roster or any of their three top prospects for him. The draft picks the Red Wings sent to Washington will fall low in each round given Detroit's place in the standings.
"Obviously, we traded someone who has been outstanding for this hockey club, and it was difficult to do," McPhee said. "But if we are going to get ready for a new era for this league [under a new collective bargaining agreement], we have to have good young players and be fiscally responsible."
Detroit had been unwilling to assume all of Lang's contract until this week, the primary reason the deal was not completed sooner, then finally withdrew a request for the Capitals to absorb $1 million a season. It is widely known around the NHL that, with projected losses of about $30 million this season, Leonsis decided to discard his most expensive players.
"It was a salary dump," said a source with intimate knowledge of the Lang trade, who, like several others quoted for this story spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to compromise future negotiations with Capitals management. "As soon as [Washington] saw it could save the whole $15 million [left on Lang's deal], the deal was done." Sources said Detroit initially resisted trading Fleischmann, the 63rd selection in the 2002 draft, then relented since he was not deemed a can't-miss prospect. Fleischmann, who is still unsigned, has scored well in junior hockey but is considered at least two years from the NHL and needs to add much strength to his 6-foot frame.
"If you hit a home run with [Fleischmann], he's another Patrick Elias," one member of Detroit's organization said, comparing the prospect to New Jersey's high-scoring winger. "But either way, he's a great kid, and we think he'll be able to play in this league."
Thus far Washington has received two NHL players collectively in the four deals completed this season: winger Anson Carter, who is solid if unspectacular, and slumping winger Bates Battaglia, who was a healthy scratch Friday. Meantime, at Leonsis's behest, McPhee has parted with Konowalchuk, the team captain; Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champion; Bondra, the franchise's all-time leading scorer; and now Lang, who was threatening to win the first league scoring title in Capitals history.
"It's tough to see him go," Witt said of Lang. "But that's just the way things have gone this year. . . . It's another big salary dumped, and again, you see all of those guys leaving."
Losing Lang creates a void for a team that has the league's third-worst record. Of all of the centers in the Capitals organization, only Michael Nylander, out all season with a broken leg, has scored 20 goals in an NHL season. Nylander made his season debut Friday and played well, collecting an assist during the Caps' four-goal third period.
Nylander, too, could be dealt before the deadline if teams deem him to be fully recovered.
Entering Friday's game, there was no center or winger on the Capitals' active roster who had surpassed 26 points through 64 contests. No Capital has scored 15 goals this season, and while the team stockpiles draft picks and prospects, those players are years from reaching the NHL, much less matching the offensive production of Lang, Jagr or Bondra.
The Capitals have also failed to address their biggest need -- defense. The team has few top prospects at the position and is entertaining myriad trade offers for its only two proven defenders -- Gonchar and Witt.
"Some teams just don't have [defensemen] to trade," McPhee said. "Detroit didn't really have any other than the ones who are already there [in the NHL], and they weren't going to move those guys."