Caps Al­ready Look­ing Ahead

Team Is Ex­pect­ing Changes for Bet­ter In the Off­sea­son

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By Tarik El- Bashir

K Sabres 2, Cap­i­tals 0

The Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals’ 2- 0 loss to the Buf­falo Sabres yes­ter­day af­ter­noon marked the end of a third con­sec­u­tive sea­son with no play­offs — and ush­ered in a crit­i­cal off­sea­son for the re­build­ing fran­chise.

The club’s im­me­di­ate and long- term fu­ture, in­deed, could be de­ter­mined by what tran­spires in the com­ing months, be­gin­ning with the en­try draft in June and con­tin­u­ing through the free agent sign­ing pe­riod. Four or more new faces might be added to the league’s youngest lineup, which is an­chored by cor­ner­stone for­wards Alex Ovechkin and Alexan­der Semin and vet­eran goal­tender Olie Kolzig, but lacks depth and ex­pe­ri­ence at other key po­si­tions.

“ We want to go into the sea­son next year more on an up­swing, not with a lot of ques­tions,” ma­jor­ity owner Ted Leon­sis said in the locker room af­ter­ward. “ The own­er­ship right now wants to in­vest. But we want to make sure we spend our money the right way. There is no magic wand, but we are go­ing to be ac­tive be­cause there are holes in the lineup.”

Those holes were again ap­par­ent against the Sabres, who struck twice in the open­ing 9 min­utes 51 sec­onds and held on be­hind the stel­lar goal­tend­ing of Ryan Miller ( 26 saves) to claim the fran­chise’s first Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy, given to the team with the most points in the league. Kolzig, mean­time, made 22 stops for the Cap­i­tals, who lost seven of their fi­nal nine games and fin­ished in the bot­tom five for the third straight sea­son, mean­ing they’re el­i­gi­ble to win the right to draft first over­all. The lot­tery will be held Tues­day in New York.

Al­though Leon­sis wouldn’t di­vulge ex­actly how much money he plans to spend this sum­mer, a sig­nif­i­cant amount would be re­quired to ad­dress all of the Cap­i­tals’ needs. On the shop­ping list is a vet­eran cen­ter, a right wing and two qual­ity de­fense­men. That’s in ad­di­tion to sign­ing 2006 draft pick Nick­las Back­strom, who has in­di­cated his de­sire to play here next sea­son.

“ It’s go­ing to be a very, very busy sum­mer for the front of­fice,” Leon­sis added.

Gen­eral Man­ager Ge­orge McPhee, along with his scout­ing staff, will travel around the world in the com­ing weeks and months, eval­u­at­ing ju­nior play­ers, mi­nor lea­guers and po­ten­tial NHL free agents. The chal­lenge, McPhee said, will be to “ pick the right play­ers at the right po­si­tions.”

Cur­rent Cap­i­tals, such as al­ls­tar Ovechkin, are count­ing on it.

“ I think it will be a good sum­mer for us,” Ovechkin said this week. “ But you don’t know who signs, who will come. But I hope. [ The fans] hope. Coach hopes. Team guys hope.”

Kolzig added: “ I’m def­i­nitely look­ing for­ward to next year, with ev­ery­thing that’s be­ing said and with what we have here right now. We have the mak­ings of be­ing very good. We were right there up un­til Christ­mas time, which is when our lack of depth re­ally showed. Hope­fully next year when guys get hurt they won’t be missed as much.”

In many ways it was fit­ting that the sea­son ended with a loss to the Sabres, be­cause the Cap­i­tals’ col­lapse be­gan in Buf­falo on Dec. 26. They sur­ren­dered six goals in the first pe­riod at HSBC Arena en route to a de­ci­sive de­feat. Bat­tling in­juries and ill­ness, Wash­ing­ton lost the next four games, and two months later, dealt its first- line cen­ter, Dainius Zubrus, to the Sabres at the NHL’s trade dead­line, an un­of­fi­cial con­ces­sion.

Leon­sis doesn’t an­tic­i­pate the Cap­i­tals will be sell­ers at the dead­line next sea­son.

“ I’m very pos­i­tive,” he said. “ I’m very up­beat be­cause we know what we have. We have a fine group of young play­ers that are all grow­ing up to­gether. We’ll add to the team un­til we’re like Buf­falo. Our bar will be raised.”

On- ice changes aren’t the only thing ex­pected next sea­son. Dur­ing the first pe­riod yes­ter­day, the words “ Change is com­ing sum­mer 2007” flashed on the video screens hang­ing above cen­ter ice. Dur­ing the pro­mo­tion, streaks of red, white and blue burst through the cur­rent dome logo, a not- so- sub­tle con­fir­ma­tion of the club’s plan to switch back to its for­mer color scheme.

“ Next year will be dif­fer­ent for us,” Ovechkin said. “ I hope we don’t fin­ish sea­son early. It’s frus­trat­ing. Next year I hope we have luck and we go to play­offs.”

Cap­i­tals Notes: Buf­falo cen­ter Tim Con­nolly, who had not played since the sec­ond round of last sea­son’s play­offs be­cause of a con­cus­sion and leg in­jury, scored the Sabres’ sec­ond goal. . . . Sabres cen­ter Daniel Briere was ejected in the third pe­riod for spear­ing de­fense­man Mi­lan Jurcina dur­ing a scrum in front of the Wash­ing­ton net. ... A large por­tion of the an­nounced sell­out crowd of 18,277 was cheer­ing for the Sabres. ... Dave Steckel, Mike Green, To­mas Fleis­chmann and Eric Fehr were sent to Her­shey ( Pa.) of the Amer­i­can Hockey League af­ter the game.

BY JIM YOUNG — REUTERS

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller makes one of his 26 saves against the Caps’ Alex Ovechkin dur­ing the sec­ond pe­riod. Wash­ing­ton lost seven of its fi­nal nine.

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