Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: Reward the Faithful

 

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis didn’t hesitate long before answering the question at the uniform unveiling party at Kettler Captials Iceplex last Friday. When asked if he would “show some solidarity” with three fans who had volunteered to receive tattoos of the team’s recently-redesigned logo (at Leonsis’ expense), the jovial owner cunningly dodged.

 

“I don’t know about that,” he laughed. “If I get a tattoo I’m pretty sure it will have to have my wife’s name in it.”

Caps fans might be willing to give Leonsis a pass on the tattoo, but they are expecting him to demonstrate a commitment to his team in the coming days … preferably by opening his check book during free agency or increasing the payroll by way of a trade.

Following the conclusion of a somewhat disappointing second year of rebuilding that saw no improvement on the team’s 70-point effort of 2005-06, Leonsis told the Washington Post that ownership was “ready to invest” and would “be active because there are holes in the lineup.”

Thus far, that reinvestment has amounted to signing defenseman Josef Boumedienne, hardly a magic bullet, as the Caps take a shot at the playoffs next year.

Things were expected to heat up at the NHL Draft. The draft has been a catalyst for many a trade. With teams like the San Jose Sharks looking to move up into the first round and the Nashville Predators trying to replace every productive member of their team with draft picks (by the by, does anyone else seem to think the Predators are trying to replicate the Cleveland Indians of “Major League” fame?), scuttlebutt abounded that the Caps’ two first round picks and/or several of their prospects could be available for some veteran help to nurture Washington’s plethora of talented past draft picks.

Sure enough, General Manager George McPhee did pull the trigger on some trades last weekend, netting the Capitals … wait for it … more draft picks.

Selecting defenseman Karl Alzner, the Caps’ pick at No. 5, and the ensuing swap of the No. 28 pick with the Sharks for second-round choices both this year and next year weren’t bad moves. Alzner was the consensus top-rated defenseman in the draft and next year’s draft is considered to be far deeper. However, they don’t provide what Washington needs most, which is proven talent that can help immediately. Combine that with previous cautious statements by Leonsis about waiting for the most opportune time to sink money into superstar free agents — thereby dimming the possibility of landing Chris Drury, Daniel Briere or Scott Gomez, a trio that comprises the class of the free agent class of 2007 — and you can see why fans might be getting discouraged at the thus-far quiet offseason.

Further hindering the Capitals’ quest to plug their holes is an ever-increasing salary cap. Since the end of the lockout, Leonsis has reiterated that his team’s low payroll is ideally positioned to take advantage of star players cut loose as casualties of the post-lockout salary cap. The only problem is that the salary cap hasn’t been low enough to be a significant factor yet. This year, the cap figures to jump from $44 million to somewhere around $50 million. Only one team, the Buffalo Sabres, figures to be severely affected by the money crunch, with their two best players in Drury and Briere up for free agency. And in that case, those two players will likely command more money on the open market than the Caps are willing to commit at this stage of the rebuilding process.

For all of the good sense that the patient plans of Leonsis and McPhee make, that may not be enough to placate a feverishly loyal fan base that is itching for a return to relevancy and the playoffs. The die-hards, like the 2,088 that gathered at Kettler last Friday night, have given the Caps two years to rebuild, but that leeway is likely reaching its limit.

Signing Gomez, trading for center Patrick Marleau, even just adding a guy like Ladislav Nagy — these fans need something to know that their faith, and in the case of the aforementioned tattooed trio, their blood, is not being wasted. The 2007 equivalent of Andy Cassels is not going to do it this year.

For two years they’ve given Leonsis and McPhee their faith, supporting a struggling team as it overhauled its roster. This is the year that faith must be rewarded.

Notes: Washington defenseman and former Ottawa Senator Brian Pothier said Friday that he had not been in touch with any of his former teammates, including free-agent-to-be Tom Preissing, about the possibility of joining him down in D.C. Preissing posted 38 points and a plus-40 rating to lead all defensemen on the Eastern Conference champion Senators in 2006-07.

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