The issue hasn't been discussed, but sooner or later the Washington Capitals and Olie Kolzig will have to answer a lingering question: Does Kolzig stay or does he go? Does the rebuilding team and its veteran goaltender agree on a long-term contract extension, or do they part ways, with Kolzig heading for a Stanley Cup contender in exchange for prospects and picks?

Kolzig's feelings about his future in Washington have changed over the past two months. So have those of team officials.

"I'm more optimistic about being here for the rest of my career than I was at the beginning of the season," said Kolzig, whose five-year contract expires after the season.

"I'd love to be one of those rare athletes who starts and finishes his career, over a long period of time, with one team. We're playing good hockey. We have a fun team. And when you have a kid like [rookie left wing Alex] Ovechkin on your team, that's a great starting point for this organization."

Asked if he wants to remain one of the rebuilding team's cornerstones, Kolzig said, "It's feeling like that right now."

If there were questions about his age and ability to regain his form after the NHL lockout, they've been answered. The 35-year-old, who has spent his entire 13-year career in Washington, has proven himself to still be an elite player, if not the best in the game.

Kolzig's statistics don't sparkle the way they once did -- his 3.35 goals against average is up from a career mark of 2.59 and his save percentage of .904 percent is lower than the .908 he brought into the season. But those numbers come with a disclaimer: Scoring across the league is up because of offense-encouraging rule changes. And Kolzig is the last line of defense behind a young and inexperienced team.

Kolzig and Ovechkin, the team's leading scorer, are two reasons General Manager George McPhee is bullish about his team's short-term future.

"We really like what we have right now," McPhee said. "There were a lot of unknowns coming into training camp. We have players playing as well as they ever have. We're going to be trending up a lot quicker than people anticipated."

McPhee declined to comment specifically on Kolzig's contract situation but he nodded when asked if he expected Kolzig, who led the Capitals to the finals in 1998 and captured the Vezina Trophy in 2000, to figure prominently in the team's next chapter.

"I haven't thought about it," Kolzig said about an extension. "I'm having fun now. When the time comes, [agent Art Breeze] and I will talk about it. I don't know if it's going to be my decision whether I stay or go. I'll have a conversation with George and the decision will be made after that. Ultimately, it's the GM's decision."

Coach Glen Hanlon doesn't want to think about trying to compete without Kolzig.

"From a coaching standpoint, what we're trying to do, you can't do without decent goaltending," Hanlon said. "It's easier to develop in a winning environment than it is when you're losing. Olie does that for us."

Kolzig's leadership contributions in the locker room are matched by his acrobatic saves in the crease.

"It would be hard to find a better goalie right now," team captain Jeff Halpern said. "Even if the win-loss record isn't where it should or could be, I think our team is doing well. But if you take Olie out of our lineup it's a different story. He covers up mistakes, he makes us more confident. Without him, who knows whether this [rebuilding] process would be going as smoothly as we think it's going right now.

"He would be a tremendous loss that I don't think you can replace. Even if you went out and got Roberto Luongo or Martin Brodeur, they don't have as much put into this organization as Olie does. Nobody else is going to care as much as Olie does. When it comes time to make that decision, that's a huge factor. He means more to this team than anyone realizes."

Olie Kolzig, 35, whose contract expires after the season, has spent his entire 13-year career in Washington.