When the telephone rang in Jiri Novotny's hotel room in Toronto on Tuesday afternoon, he nervously reached for the receiver. Buffalo Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff was on the line.

"He told me to come to his room," Novotny said after yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, his first as a member of the Washington Capitals. "I know right away something happen."

His instincts were right. Novotny, a 23-year-old checking line center with some offensive upside, was informed by Ruff that he had been traded along with a first-round draft pick to the Capitals for veteran center Dainius Zubrus and minor league defenseman Timo Helbling.

"It was a big shock for me," Novotny said of the deal, which was completed only an hour before the 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline. "I didn't have any idea I was going to be traded. Buffalo was my first organization."

Like that, Novotny was headed from a Stanley Cup contender to a rebuilding club that is probably going to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season. But, as his shock subsided, the 2001 first-round draft pick realized something positive about his new situation.

"In Buffalo there are a lot of great, talented hockey players," said Novotny, who hopes to be in the lineup tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center. "So I play sometimes like eight minutes. I come over here and get more ice time."

Getting more ice time shouldn't be a problem, given the considerable the void created by the departures of Zubrus and right wing Richard Zednik, who was traded to the New York Islanders on Monday. In Buffalo, Novotny began the season playing right wing alongside Chris Drury and Ales Kotalik, but was eventually demoted to the fourth line, where he centered rugged wingers Adam Mair and Andrew Peters.

During yesterday's practice, Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon, who was admittedly unfamiliar with his newest player, put Novotny between wingers Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann, Novotny's former linemate with the Czech junior national team. Although Novotny (six goals and seven assists) has been hobbled by a high ankle sprain, which sidelined him for 11 of his final 15 games in Buffalo, including the past five, he appeared unencumbered during the hour-long practice. The practice focused on helping him grasp Hanlon's forechecking system.

"We tried to cover as much systems stuff as we could so he could get comfortable," Hanlon said. "There are enough things in hockey that are pretty much the same no matter which team you play for. But there are a couple of things he'll have to get used to."

Novotny's Washington debut will come against a Lightning club that is leading the Southeast Division and has won six of its past nine games (6-1-2) behind the NHL's leading goal scorer, Vincent Lecavalier (41 goals). The Capitals, meantime, have lost seven of eight (1-4-3) and no longer have their two most experienced forwards (Zubrus and Zednik.)

"This is a big chance for me," Novotny, who earns the league minimum of $450,000 and becomes a restricted free agent on July 1. "I'm happy I come to this team. I want play hard and try my best for Washington Capitals."

Capitals Notes: Novotny has been assigned No. 13. Right wing Eric Fehr, who has missed three games with a back injury, did not practice. Right wing Chris Clark (sprained shoulder) skated on his own and is progressing. Goaltender Olie Kolzig (sprained knee) skated separate from his teammates in full gear, but said the joint still felt "loose." Assistant equipment manager Craig Leydig worked his 1,500th game on Tuesday.