-- The negotiators for the NHL and its players' union may be finished, but things are far from settled for the Washington Capitals. Signing Alexander Ovechkin and more than a dozen other players, hiring ticket sales executives, and luring back fans are among the many tasks ahead for the front office over the next two months as the team tries to rebound from a 10-month labor dispute that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
Despite those challenges, the feeling among players and team officials at the club's developmental camp Thursday was one of relief.
"Being from Canada, the lockout was on TV every day," center Brian Sutherby said after practice at Giant Center, home of the Hershey Bears, the Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate. "And every day, it was, 'This could be it, or maybe tomorrow.' That went on for like a month and a half. I'm just glad it's over. I know a lot of the older guys aren't too happy. But being a young guy, I'm just excited about getting back on the ice and getting the opportunity to play at that level."
The NHL season is expected to begin in early October, provided the owners and players ratify the collective bargaining agreement the sides agreed to Wednesday. The owners and players are scheduled to vote next week.
"We are extremely pleased the NHL and Players Association have reached an agreement in principle and look forward to the ratification process," Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis said in a statement. "We are excited about the prospects of returning to the ice and welcoming our fans back to the MCI Center."
But whether those fans will see Ovechkin in a Capitals uniform this season remains unclear. Signing Ovechkin, the team's No. 1 overall draft pick last year, is the club's top priority, but the 19-year-old left wing has complicated matters by agreeing to a deal to play for Avangard Omsk of the Russian Super League next season.
Ovechkin's agent, Don Meehan, said Thursday his client has until Wednesday to back out of that contract and sign with the Capitals, and that his decision is not contingent on the NHL having a completed collective bargaining agreement by that date. However, Meehan said he would need to know the precise language of the CBA before he would advise Ovechkin to void his Russian deal.
Ovechkin's status isn't the only question mark facing the Capitals. Washington has only nine players under contract, including goalie Olaf Kolzig, but just a handful are ready to make an impact in the NHL. The league's roster maximum is 23.
The key restricted free agents who are likely to be re-signed, according to team sources, are forwards Jeff Halpern, Matt Pettinger, Dainius Zubrus, Jared Aulin and Sutherby, as well as defensemen Brendan Witt, Jason Doig, Steve Eminger and Shaone Morrisson. Eric Fehr, the team's 2003 first-round pick, also will be signed.
General Manager George McPhee also has to hire an assistant coach and an assistant general manager, and the front office must add 20 to 30 full-time employees. Meantime, McPhee has extended the contract of Coach Glen Hanlon, according to team sources. An official announcement will be made after the collective bargaining agreement is ratified.
"The lockout was a bad thing for the NHL and for a lot of teams. But for Washington it was almost a positive in a way," Eminger said. "It gave all the young guys we made trades for a chance to [play together in the minor leagues], get to know each other, build friendships and develop some chemistry on the ice."
Sutherby said: "We've got a great group of young guys here and a lot of good prospects. We may not look too bright for the next couple of years because we are going to be so young. But we're pretty excited. One thing we'll bring every night is youth and enthusiasm and work ethic. We want to be like Tampa Bay: grow together as a team. We're going to live and die with the young guys."