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  Caps Can't Wait Till Next Year
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 1998; Page B1

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Exhausted and spent from a grueling postseason that ended so abruptly, the Washington Capitals took yesterday off to recover. Players slept late, spent time with their families and began to put their sticks away for the summer, pausing occasionaly to think of the way the Detroit Red Wings swept them out of the Stanley Cup finals in four games, to ponder all the triumph and heartbreak of the playoffs.

But to a core group of people, the Capitals' 4-1 loss to the Red Wings at MCI Center on Tuesday signified a beginning, not an ending. General Manager George McPhee showed up at his office early yesterday morning to begin planning what the club will look like next season. Aware that getting to the Stanley Cup finals is one of the most difficult tasks in hockey, McPhee now faces a task almost as daunting: getting back.

Of the eight teams that have lost the Stanley Cup finals since 1990, only Detroit has been able to return, much less win a Cup. Last year's runner-up, Philadelphia, lost in the first round this year. The 1996 loser, Florida, lost in the first round in 1997 and practically fell off the face of the earth in 1998. Both teams have since fired their coaches.

McPhee knows the syndrome well — he was with the Vancouver Canucks after they took the New York Rangers to seven games in the 1994 finals, but Vancouver has won just one postseason series since. He also knows the Capitals may be poised to buck the trend. With a new downtown arena, the team has more cash flexibility than it has had in years to retain key players and sign new ones. McPhee, entering his second year, has been here long enough to know the Capitals' talent needs but not so long as to get frustrated and rip up the team, a la Bobby Clarke and the Flyers.

Most important, the key component the Capitals seemed to be missing in the finals was experience, and they have it now.

"I've been meeting with the scouts, and I'll sit down with Ron [Wilson] and the coaches to analyze where we are and what we have to do to make this team better," McPhee said yesterday, arriving at his office less than eight hours after leaving MCI Center the night before. "I think our team is in excellent shape, but the lineup that Detroit had on the ice was better than ours. What I'd like to do is determine ways of making us better, and Detroit is as good a measuring stick as anyone."

Despite the end of on-ice action, the Capitals' offices will be buzzing for at least a month, starting with a flurry of meetings yesterday. The NHL is imposing a trading freeze that begins tonight and ends after the June 25 expansion draft. Once the rosters are set, teams can protect only some players, so other general managers around the league have been talking and dealing for the last month. Washington wanted to stay out of the fray until the postseason ended to preserve team unity, but the result of that policy was a 48-hour window to get its roster in order, starting from the moment the Red Wings began parading the Stanley Cup around MCI Center.

"I didn't get involved in any of those discussions, because I didn't think it was appropriate to solicit players with our team playing as well as they were," McPhee said of the trade talks. "It felt unclean. Now that we're finished, I'm obligated to talk to teams and I am interested in some of the things going on out there."

Beyond tonight's trading deadline, the Capitals have a high number of contracts to negotiate this summer. Of the regular roster players, Brian Bellows, Dale Hunter, Jeff Brown and Todd Krygier are unrestricted free agents, while Sergei Gonchar, Joe Juneau, Andrei Nikolishin, Pat Peake and Jeff Toms are Group II free agents, who can sign offer sheets from other teams but for whom the Capitals get the right of first refusal.

There are a high number of unrestricted free agents surfacing around the league, including St. Louis winger Brett Hull, whom the Capitals have been eyeing for years, and Pittsburgh's Ron Francis, one the quieter superstars in the NHL. An unusually high number of goaltenders will be available this summer, but Washington is not on the market after the stupendous season just completed by 28-year-old Olaf Kolzig.

It is Kolzig, in fact, who has given so many of his teammates hope for next year.

"I think we'll be back here next year, because we have a real good hockey team," winger Craig Berube said. "Olie is one of the top three [goalies] in the league. With a goalie like that, we can do a lot of damage.

"This year, we were just in a little awe of the Red Wings. It's tough in your first time. You have to learn how to win, and that was the big learning experience for us."

The experience of going through the finals as a team is the one element McPhee cannot acquire, of course, no matter how much time he spent in meetings yesterday. That experience has doomed some teams, such as the Panthers and Los Angeles Kings, while others, such as Detroit, have flowered from it.

"Getting there the first time, there was so much going on, you're so excited that it almost became hard to get ready to play," Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said Tuesday, recalling the Red Wings' sweep by New Jersey in 1995. "Coming in the second time, we were totally concentrating on playing hockey. It took that experience to feel comfortable, a lot of work and some player changes, and we were able to win a Stanley Cup."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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