When the Washington Capitals skate at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton this morning, they'll do so as a team for the first time in nearly 17 months. Welcoming them back will be a host of tough questions.

Fifty-eight players -- a mixture of veterans, new faces and familiar ones, prospects and draft picks -- will battle for about 20 roster spots in Washington and 20 more in Hershey, Pa., the Capitals' minor league affiliate. The next three weeks figure to be intense, with many highly touted prospects anxious to prove they belong in the NHL.

"It's going to be interesting to see how the young guys have developed," veteran center Jeff Halpern said yesterday. "There's always one or two guys who surprise everyone."

But the competition on the ice could be overshadowed by questions off it:

* Will Peter Bondra, one of the most popular players ever to wear a Capitals sweater, sign as a free agent? The 37-year-old right wing, the franchise leader in goals and points, has been offered a one-year contract worth $1.5 million to return to Washington. Incentives could increase the value to $2 million.

General Manager George McPhee and Bondra's agent, Ritch Winter, spoke again over the weekend, although a source indicated it was unlikely Bondra would be signed in time to join the team today.

* Will defenseman Brendan Witt, a nine year veteran in Washington, be a member of the Capitals on opening night? The 30-year-old went public with his desire to be dealt to a contender in August, although such a move would appear unlikely considering the team is already short on experienced defensemen.

* Will defenseman Josef Boumedienne, a restricted free agent, play in Washington or overseas? The 27-year-old has agreed to play for the ZSC Lions of the Swiss Elite League, according to ZSC's Web site, after refusing to sign the Capitals' one-year offer in August. Although Boumedienne has played in only 47 NHL games, he is capable of making an impact, particularly on the Capitals' power plays.

* Will McPhee make a move to strengthen the defense? With most quality free agents already signed elsewhere, the market is pretty bare. With a payroll already over the $25 million majority owner Ted Leonsis had hoped to spend this season, the Capitals still would like to add at least one more experienced defenseman.

Another question surely to be repeated in the coming days is "What's that guy's name again?" as new players, coaches and staff get familiar with one another.

The roster has undergone a complete overhaul since the team's 4-3 loss in Pittsburgh on April 4, 2004, the conclusion of the franchise's worst season in 26 years.

"It's almost like getting traded because there's going to be a lot of new faces," Halpern said. "There's a lot of free agents we picked up or guys we traded for."

Halpern is back. So are Witt, goaltender Olaf Kolzig and forward Dainius Zubrus. Alexander Ovechkin, the team's 2004 No. 1 overall draft pick, will be there, too. But casual fans will need a roster to identify most others.

Despite the uncertainty, Halpern is glad the wait is over.

"I'm excited to get back out there," Halpern said. "The first week of camp is always tough, but it's been so long, everyone's looking forward to it."

Capitals Notes: Forwards Alexander Semin and Petr Sykora had not arrived in the United States as of last night because of problems acquiring visas, a team spokesman said. The Capitals expect both to be in training camp later this week. Semin was suspended by the Capitals last September for failing to report to Washington's AHL team but remains under contract. Sykora was acquired from Nashville in 2002 but has not played a game in Washington because of contract issues. He signed with the Capitals in August. . . . Fans can participate in hockey skill games in the Piney Orchard parking lot tomorrow from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and enter to win a private skate with Ovechkin.

General Manager George McPhee is facing contract issues dealing with Peter Bondra, Brendan Witt and Josef Boumedienne as the Capitals get set to start the 2005 season.