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In Year Two of Washington’s Reboot, Ownership Sets a Goal of Playoffs, but Expects Only Progress

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This is not the year.

To most fans of the rebuilding Washington Capitals, the lack of playoff expectations hardly comes as a surprise. And while the lowered expectations were never openly voiced during the Caps’ media day on Tuesday afternoon, the undercurrent of inferences and cautioned hopes confirmed that the front office and owner Ted Leonsis would be quite satisfied with another solid step toward future contention.

“I would like us to make the playoffs this year,” Leonsis said Tuesday before adding a partial qualifier. “I think that’s a goal that every team that’s constructed needs to go into the season with.”

In adding the requisite nature of that goal, Leonsis and the Caps are making their beliefs quite clear: The playoffs would be great, but one solid stride forward will do just fine.

Improvement should not be too difficult for a team that finished with just 70 points last season. And while the Capitals earned a reputation as a tough out late in the year, the youth-heavy club still posted the third-worst record in the league.

The growing pains were expected as Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee attempted to reconstruct the franchise, purging the team of high-salaried, under-producing stars like Jaromir Jagr for prospects and draft picks.

A few of those prospects, most notably defenseman Mike Green (selected with a draft pick obtained by trading Sergei Gonchar to Boston) and forward Brooks Laich (acquired from Ottawa in the Peter Bondra trade), will take the ice at Verizon Center on a regular basis this season, the first visible dividends of the rebuilding process. Joining them will be off-season acquisitions Donald Brashear, Richard Zednik and Brian Pothier. Acquired as a free agent from Ottawa, Pothier was brought in to shore up last season’s suspect blue line, while Zednik returns to Washington after a 2000 trade sent him to Montreal in exchange for current Capital Dainus Zubrus.

“Everyone got much younger,” Zednik said of his return. “When I leave I was the youngest guy. But that’s rebuilding, you know?”

Zednik, along with forward Alexander Semin, who returns to the Capitals after a series of contractual issues prompted him to return to his native Russia for the 2005-06 season, are expected to invigorate last season’s lackluster offense. In 2005-06, just under a quarter of the team’s 230 goals were scored by rookie phenom, and eventual Calder Trophy winner, Alexander Ovechkin. In the past four seasons skating with Montreal’s top lines, Zednik averaged almost 24 goals per season. Meanwhile, GM McPhee is extremely optimistic about Semin’s shooting abilities.

Morrisonn“30 goals is not out of the question,” McPhee said.

The Capitals’ goaltending tandem will remain static this season, with Brent Johnson backing up starter Olaf Kolzig. In February, Kolzig, 36, received a two-year, $10.9 million extension with the Capitals despite the sweeping youth movement.

Even with the team’s new long term vision, Leonsis said he never had a second thought about bringing back Kolzig, the franchise’s career leader in games played, wins, saves and shutouts.

“Olie is our leader,” Leonsis said. “He’s a Washington Capital. Alexander Ovechkin is a Washington Capital. They are the bedrocks and we’ll build the team around them.”

When speaking with the media on Tuesday, Kolzig sounded just the part when asked about his personal goals for this season.

“I just want to give these guys a chance to win,” Kolzig said. “Whether it’s a big save to keep the score 6-5 or 1-0, I just want to give the guys the chance to come out on top.”

The disciplined, defense-first system espoused by Washington Head Coach Glen Hanlon has Kolzig optimistic he’ll face fewer shots than the 1,987 fired at him last year.

“Last season, the first six weeks our system got exposed a little bit and our defense allowed a lot of chances against,” Kolzig said. “We switched our system and it seemed to help a little bit. We’re young back there, but when the forwards come back and help and we’re all collapsing in the middle it really takes away a lot of scoring chances.”

The acquisition of Pothier, an unheralded defenseman with the Senators, but highly touted by both Hanlon and McPhee, ought to help limit shots against Kolzig, but any chance at a potential playoff run will ride on the continued development of the Capitals’ young blueliners Shaone Morrisonn and Steve Eminger.

Morrisonn is expected to again serve as the team’s shut-down defender, playing alongside Pothier as the Caps’ top defensive pairing. Eminger, meanwhile, will likely partner with forward-turned-defenseman Ben Clymer to form the No. 2 pairing.

Along with the rest of the team’s young talent, Morrisonn says he’s been working hard during the offseason to improve for the 2006-07 campaign.

“I wanted to get a little quicker and come into camp ready to go out of the gates,” Morrison said. “I think it’s pretty important that the team gets off to a great start. Last year we didn’t get off to a good start and it hurt us.”

The Capitals open the season Thursday at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers before returning to D.C. for their home opener against the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Carolina Hurricanes. If the Caps are to start swiftly as Morrisonn wants, the team will need to play smart hockey and eliminate the costly defensive mistakes that resulted in power plays for the opposition time and again last season. After allowing an NHL-high 116 power play goals last season, Hanlon has emphasized the elimination of unnecessary penalties this pre-season. He hammered the point home by benching Eminger for the remaining 55-minutes in the Caps’ game last Sunday, after the defenseman took a penalty for interference, resulting in 5-on-3 goal for the Carolina Hurricanes’ Erik Cole.

“I was kind of surprised. I never sat out a whole game before,” Eminger said, adding that he had cleared things up with Hanlon after receiving an explanation. “I think we do have to be a disciplined team. A lot of games are won and lost on special teams.”

Even if there is no improvement in the team’s record, which seems less likely than the procurement of a playoff spot, fans of the Capitals and the sport itself will still get to enjoy superstar Alex Ovechkin’s second season in the league. In his rookie campaign, the 21-year-old Russian tallied 106 points, the third-highest total in the league. Even as expectations rise for the phenom, his coach is quick to point out that this season will not be one of increased pressures.

“The biggest season for Alex isn’t his second season, it’s the next 10 seasons,” Hanlon said.

By all accounts, that statement holds true for the rest of the Washington Capitals as well.

“Our goal is to build a team that’s generationally really good,” Leonsis said. “Our goal is to start to make the playoffs, be in the playoffs year after year, win cups, be in the finals, then win more cups and I think we’re well on our way to constructing a team and a culture that can achieve that.”

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