The grunting coming out of the Capitals practice facility these
days is a far more pleasant sound to Washington fans than the
cries of "Ouch!" that echoed throughout last season. In 1998-99
the Caps lost a staggering 511 man-games to injury. In June,
Washington dismissed trainer Stan Wong, who had been with the
Capitals since 1986-87, and though general manager George McPhee
says the firing was "not an attempt to assess blame," he was
delighted to bring in Greg Smith, who last season was the
trainer for the Ducks, the team that lost the NHL's fewest
man-games to injury (98).
From the start of camp Smith had the Caps stretching and riding
stationary bikes before they took the ice each day. After
practice the players tossed around medicine balls and endured
grueling abdominal workouts. "We're doing things as a
preventative so that we don't have to do them in rehab," says
coach Ron Wilson. "The guys don't mind. They'd run a marathon
every day if they thought it could turn us around."
When Washington's players arrived in camp last season they were
coming off a run to the Stanley Cup finals (where they were
swept by the Red Wings) and had high hopes of returning. By
early October forwards Steve Konowalchuk, Michal Pivonka and Jan
Bulis were injured. As the season limped on, one key player
after another--from premier center Adam Oates to top defenseman
Mark Tinordi--missed a lot of time. The Capitals wound up
31-45-6 and out of the playoffs. "One injury led to another,"
says Wilson. "Guys who had to fill in got worn down. Then they
got injured too."
Wilson is trying to phase young players like Bulis, 21, and
Jaroslav Svejkovsky, 22, into prominent roles. But with Oates,
sniper Peter Bondra, veteran defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Calle
Johansson, and always aggressive, sometimes brilliant goaltender
Olaf Kolzig, Washington hasn't changed much from last year--or
from the team that went to the finals 16 months ago. If healthy,
the club could challenge for the title in the Southeast Division.
The most significant change outside of the trainer's room
occurred when a group led by America Online executive Ted
Leonsis bought the Capitals in June. Leonsis, who has made
millions at the internet company, knows that America on line is
not how you would describe attendance at Washington home games.
The Caps sometimes play before small and listless crowds, and
Leonsis has vowed to change that, in part by increasing his
players' visibility. It's a good idea--so long as the players
Defenseman Sergei Gonchar (13 power-play goals, 10 assists) was
the only NHL player last season with as many as 10 power-play
goals and as few as 10 assists.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 22 Must find more help for Bondra
DEFENSE 15 Mental game needs to catch up to physical
GOALTENDING 8 Kolzig can single-handedly keep team in games
SPECIAL TEAMS 20 Hunter, Miller will be missed on penalty
COACHING 19 Wilson needs to rekindle spirit of fragile