There will be an extra sparkle in the eyes of members of the Washington Capitals' brass tonight as they watch their latest project come to fruition when the Skipjacks face Rochester at the Arena.
For general manager David Poile and director of player personnel Jack Button, seeing newly acquired Soviet forward Dimitri Khristich, 21, make his North American debut is the completion of many months of planning and negotiations.
But as happy as Poile and Button may be finally to have the Soviet dynamo snuggled into the fold of the organization, the influx of new blood has caused a certain amount of dissent within the Jacks' clubhouse.
Khristich, a sixth-round Caps draft pick in 1988, is the fourth Eastern Bloc player the organization has brought to America since training camp in September. Defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov, another Soviet, and defenseman Jiri Vykoukal and tTC forward Peter Bondra, a pair of Czechs, also have joined the already-tough battle for a spot on the Caps' NHL roster.
Upon hearing the news of Khristich's signing Tuesday night, several of the Jacks were quick to criticize the organization and wonder aloud where they fit into the Caps' plans.
"You come to training camp in September and they tell the young guys to go to Baltimore and work hard because they are the future of the organization," said defenseman Chris Felix, 26. "They tell you that you have to pay your dues. But then they turn around and bring these guys over and pay them three times the amount of money we're making and they go straight to the NHL."
Most of the borderline Caps players with two-way contracts make $100,000 in the NHL and between $30,000 and $40,000 in the AHL. Though their salaries have not been released, it is believed that the Caps have paid in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars just for the rights to each of the Europeans.
Tim Taylor, a center who is directly affected on the depth chart, said the locker room talk has been extensive.
"Everyone here knows that the Caps went through a lot of trouble and paid big money to get him [Khristich] here, but he hasn't proven a thing," Taylor said. "I can see a lot of bickering and I can see him taking some abuse. The worst part is that it isn't even his fault."
Poile said the reactions were "typical from the Canadians -- it was the same thing a few years back when more Americans were coming into the NHL.
"We're looking to get the best players we can find to be members of the Washington Capitals -- wherever we can find them," Poile said. "In doing this we try to remain conscious of the chemistry of both teams. We're not the best team in the NHL. We're striving to become the best."
Capitals coach Terry Murray said he wasn't surprised by the reaction of some players, but hopes the anger will spill onto the ice in the form of better play.
"There is no need for anybody to be upset," Murray said. "The competition here should be healthy. Hopefully, this will help all of the players rise to another level."
Asked if Khristich would be readily accepted by his new teammates, Murray said, "Players will always accept good players."
Some of the players agreed.
"If the guy is a good enough player, then he belongs in the National League," said right wing John Purves, who played for the Capitals for two weeks in November. "Tatarinov is a good example. I played with him and I know he belongs there. I think some of the guys are just blowing off some steam."
Tyler Larter, another forward who is affected by Khristich's arrival, concurred.
"This is nothing new for us," Larter said. "He's the fourth one and it's going to keep happening in the future. You begin to expect it."
Poile has said that Khristich is the last of this season's European acquisitions.
Maltais, a left wing who has made several trips back and forth down I-95 since coming out of junior hockey last fall and leads the Jacks in scoring this season with 36 points, said it's more frustration than anger for the fringe players.
"It seems like everything is handed to them [the Europeans] when they come over here," Maltais said. "The organization is sure making it a lot tougher on us. These guys are taking our jobs.
"Obviously, you can get a little greedy because of the money and all, but I don't want to be 30 when I begin my career in the NHL," said Maltais, 21. "I know there are plenty of other teams in the NHL that I'd be playing for right now and you can't help but be disappointed."
Murray said some of the players are overlooking many of the contributing factors to Khristich's entry.
"This guy just didn't lace up his skates last week," Murray said. "We're talking about a world-class player who has paid the price in his own way and maybe even more so than a lot of our other players. I'd say he's worked his butt off to get here."
The pair of Czechs have taken separate paths since their arrival prior to training camp in August. Bondra, a right wing, has prospered with the Caps, scoring 22 points in 29 games. Vykoukal, a defenseman, has been the first scratch in many of the Jacks' games and has appeared in 20 of 28 games.
Murray also emphasized the fact that Khristich has been a threat to the other players since the day he was drafted in 1988.
"It's not like we made a big trade to get him," Murray said. "He's a draft choice just like all of the rest of them. It's no different than if we had a great player coming out of the juniors."
It won't take long for Khristich to get an opportunity to prove his worth.
The 6-foot-2 center/left wing is slated to play for the Jacks tonight against the Amerks and tomorrow against Moncton, and will move onto the Caps roster for a Monday meeting with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
But don't expect the dissent to recede in the meantime.
"Ask Mr. Poile if he has any room in his organization for some nice Canadian boys," said center Rob Murray, who spent much of the year with the Caps but is with the Jacks for a two-week conditioning period.
"If they're good enough, we sure do," Poile said.