The Washington Capitals reopened for business yesterday, less than 24 hours after the longest labor dispute in professional sports history came to an end.
And while they didn't sign a free agent or buy out a veteran, the Capitals' plan for next season came into focus during a news conference at the organization's downtown headquarters.
That plan can be summed up in two words: young and inexpensive.
Majority owner Ted Leonsis said the Capitals' 2005-06 payroll will fall somewhere between the salary cap minimum of $21.5 million and $25 million.
"This first year [under the league's salary cap economic system] we're going to see what we have," Leonsis said. "The key element in this new system is to have the ability to act at the right time [and get the] right player. Unlike the NBA, this is hard cap. And unlike the NFL, all of our contracts are guaranteed.
"So imagine if everyone went out and spent $39 million this year on long-term deals. You're kind of done."
Leonsis also said the team plans to retain its veterans, adding that the contract of 35-year-old goaltender Olaf Kolzig won't be bought out. Kolzig is in the final season of a five-year contract that will pay him $4.94 million this season. (Clubs have a one-time opportunity this week to buy out players for two-thirds of their remaining contract and not have it count against their salary cap.) "Out of the gate . . . we are keeping our veterans," Leonsis said. "My goal is to ice a competitive team this year."
The other veterans who are almost certain to wear a Capitals uniform next season are center Jeff Halpern, right wing Dainius Zubrus and defenseman Brendan Witt. All three are restricted free agents and will receive qualifying offers this week, General Manager George McPhee said.
Leonsis and McPhee are going to take the cautious approach to signing free agents, saying they will monitor signings and buyouts around the league before deciding which players to add.
The team's top priority remains signing Alexander Ovechkin, the club's No. 1 overall pick last year. League sources have indicated Ovechkin, who backed out of a deal with his Russian Super League team to join the Capitals, could be signed this week.
"We are making every effort to bring him here," Leonsis said. "George spoke to the agent [Friday] night, as did I. We both want him here."
The Capitals are in need of help everywhere except in goal, where Kolzig figures to be the starter. The backup will be either Maxime Ouellet or Rastislav Stana, both highly regarded minor leaguers.
Washington doesn't have a single defenseman under contract, though that is likely to change this week. The team's blueline will likely be anchored by Witt, who will be joined by a largely unproven group of young players that includes Steve Eminger (58 NHL games), Josef Boumedienne (47), Shaone Morrisonn (44) and Nolan Yonkman (12), all restricted free agents.
"We need some help on the blueline and we have some money to spend there," Leonsis said.
The only forwards penciled into the lineup are Halpern, Zubrus, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. The other spots will be filled by prospects who win jobs during training camp and low-priced free agents.
"We want the young kid to play," Leonsis said. "We want [center Brian] Sutherby to play, we want [right wing Boyd] Gordon to play. Semin will play a big role as we move forward."
Although they'll be ranked among the bottom of the league in payroll to start the season, McPhee pointed to Leonsis's history of opening his wallet when necessary.
"We're not going to make huge commitments early on," McPhee said. "But, as we've seen with Ted in the past, if we think we have a chance, we'll go for it. The resources will be there."