When the Washington Capitals signed Andrew Cassels in August, club officials hoped the veteran center would flourish on one of the top forward lines, perhaps even become Alex Ovechkin's set-up man. Cassels hoped more ice time would reinvigorate his career.

So far, it hasn't worked out for the Capitals or Cassels.

Cassels, a former four-time 20 goal scorer and one of the best passers in the league, has not been in uniform for the Capitals' past five games, leaving him stuck on 996 career games for nearly two weeks.

"Anytime you're not playing when you're healthy it's tough," Cassels said after yesterday's practice at MCI Center. "If you want to know what's [wrong], you can ask Glen [Hanlon] or George [McPhee] or whoever is making the decision. My philosophy is try to stay positive, work hard and try to get back in the lineup."

Cassels, 36, has one goal and two assists in 12 games, despite averaging 13 minutes 36 seconds of ice time -- seventh among Capitals forwards -- and significant time on the power play. His only score came in the Capitals' second game and his assists were in the fourth and fifth contests.

"When I signed here, obviously, I was thinking some good things," Cassels said. "And then I'm out of the lineup. I don't understand."

Cassels is frustrated and upset, but the 15-year veteran, who is the third highest-paid forward on the team at $1.5 million a year, also knew to bite his tongue when discussing the situation.

Hanlon, the Capitals' coach, has been loath to openly discuss personnel decisions or publicly criticize the play of his players. When asked about Cassels last week, he said only: "Sometimes, if we play this game long enough, we're going to have high periods and low periods. Andrew is going to be fine."

Jeff Halpern, the team captain, empathizes with Cassels, having gone through a similar slump during the 2003-04 season. Halpern found himself in street clothes for three consecutive games. At the time, he had two goals and four assists in 23 games.

"I went though the same thing," Halpern said. "The worst part about it is you don't feel like you're a part of what's going on. I sympathize with him. That was a difficult time. I had my opinions of what should or shouldn't have been done. He's probably going through the exact same thing."

Halpern hasn't given up hope on Cassels. "He's still the guy on our team with the most ability to make plays and set up guys and run the power play," he said. "Those types of things you don't lose."

It's possible Cassels might return to the lineup tonight against Tampa Bay, depending on the health of center Dainius Zubrus, who has been slowed by a groin injury and did not skate with the team yesterday.

If Cassels does play, it would end the latest test of his short but turbulent tenure in Washington. About a month after signing a one-year contract, Cassels suffered a fractured zygomatic arch, the bone between the temple and ear, after being hit by a slap shot off the stick of former Capital Sergei Gonchar during informal workouts at the team's practice facility. Cassels underwent surgery to repair the bone and missed nearly all of training camp as a result.

On Oct. 13, Cassels was hit on the ankle by a slap shot moments into the game against the Islanders and did not return. He played three days later against the Lightning, but was clearly slowed by the injury.

"It's just a tough situation," Cassels said. "I honestly don't have an answer."

Capitals Notes: Reigning NHL scoring champion Martin St. Louis won't face the Capitals tonight -- or anyone for two to four weeks, for that matter -- because of a broken finger on his left hand.

The Lightning's dynamo was hit on the hand by a slap shot off the stick of teammate Darryl Sydor during practice Sunday. Left wing Jeff Friesen (groin) did not skate yesterday and remains on injured reserve.

Andrew Cassels, center, shown pursuing the Flyers' Peter Forsberg, has been a healthy scratch in five straight games.