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More cash wasted in nation's capital

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

The biggest flop of the season is, without a doubt, the Capitals.

It was big news when Washington signed Jaromir Jagr to an eight-year, $88-million deal.

He was the piece that was supposed to make the Caps Stanley Cup contenders.

All that did was make the team an expensive flop.

"I'll be bored for sure," Jagr said of not making the playoffs. "It's a long summer."

Washington, which hasn't won a playoff series under coach Ron Wilson since 1998, played some of its best hockey down the stretch. But so what?

"We stated a goal to go deep into the playoffs," owner Ted Leonsis said. "You can't sugarcoat it."

What went wrong?

The team got off to its usual slow start, there were lots of injuries, league assist leader Adam Oates was traded, and it took a lot longer than previous seasons for the Caps to hit their stride.

The pivotal moment, however, might have been in the season's first game, when Jagr was taken down by Rangers defenseman Igor Ulanov.

Jagr's knee was injured, making his first two months a physical challenge.

Despite the slow start, he is among the league leaders with 47 assists and 78 points.

But it is a bad strategy when everything revolves around one player.

Leonsis admitted the team needs a few tweaks.

"But we like this team," he said. "We don't need to blow this team up. ... I hope we learned our lesson. There's no magic switch that you turn on and automatically start playing better."

It doesn't work with just a checkbook either.

ROOKIE AWARD: Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk may get more press, and he blew up at the YoungStars Game, but the rookie of the year should be Kovalchuk's teammate, Dany Heatley.

He likely will play all 82 games (Kovalchuk was benched once) and, this is most important, explores life on the other side of the red line, something Kovalchuk does grudgingly.

"His best quality," said former Stars coach Ken Hitchcock, who is scouting for talent for Team Canada at the World Championships, "is he plays a mature game. He does not play a game that has a lot of kid in him.

"When you see a player that young with that kind of maturity, you know he has a chance to be an impact player very early.

"I don't know Dany at all, but as a coach, that's what sticks out. He does a lot of little things well that will be part of his landscape for years."

Heatley, who leads all rookies in scoring and assists, embraced the compliment.

"This year I've heard about maturity more than ever," he said. "When I was in juniors and college, I was known as an offensive guy who couldn't play defense or do anything else, so it's nice to hear that."

HORRIBLE STRETCH: Three weeks with the Blue Jackets, courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch:

March 18: Two days before her 14th birthday, Brittanie Cecil dies after being struck with a puck shot by Columbus' Espen Knutsen.

March 24: Blue Jackets equipment manager Tim LeRoy gets whiplash after his car is rear-ended.

March 25: Blue Jackets travel to Vancouver. A headline in the Vancouver Province referring to Knutsen: "Player who shot death puck."

March 26: Left wing Serge Aubin is struck in the mouth by slap shot from Edmonton's Ethan Moreau. Aubin loses three teeth and needs three-hour root canal.

March 28: Right wing Kevin Dineen separates cartilage in ribs.

March 30: Blue Jackets lose 10-2 to the Sharks, tying the team's greatest losing margin.

March 31: Knutsen appears on Sports Illustrated cover. Headline: "Death of a Fan."

April 1: Left wing Geoff Sanderson suffers a concussion when he is accidentally sticked in the chin by a teammate.

April 6: The wife of left wing Ray Whitney needs a blood transfusions and has a shaky night after a C-section to deliver the couple's first child. Wife Brijet and daughter Hanna are fine.

April 7: Aubin's father-in-law, Martial Boudreault, and a friend are killed in a car crash as they return to Val d'Or after watching the Jackets play at Montreal.

"We're going through a tough stint right now," goaltender Ron Tugnutt said.

ODDS AND ENDS: Classy move by the Senators to let Roger Neilson coach the final two regular-season games to reach 1,000 in his career. "Even the NHL phoned and warned me not to throw any sticks or water bottles," joked the always-intense Neilson. ... Blackhawks coach Brian Sutter said goaltender Jocelyn Thibault is not a sure bet to start in the playoffs. It might be Steve Passmore, who has been more consistent down the stretch. ... The Panthers are working to convince defenseman Robert Svehla not to retire. ... The Rangers might not pick up the option on defenseman Bryan Berard, who said he would like to return to the Maple Leafs. ... The Leafs may ask not to travel to Edmonton next season to protest the Oilers putting a minor-league team in Toronto.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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