Caps coach brims with optimism

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jim Schoenfeld is looking at the Washington Capitals' roster. Training camp begins tomorrow. And the names, most of them, are the same as last season.

Dimitri Khristich, Dale Hunter, Peter Bondra, Joe Juneau . . .

So familiar.

But as Schoenfeld talks about this team, it is as if he is talking about a different team. One that wasn't 39-35-10 last season -- thanks to a year-end run of 19-12-6.

"These are not the same guys," Schoenfeld said recently. "It's a totally different team, a totally different situation. I'm not the same person, and none of them are, either. None of us are going to make the same mistakes, and each of them is working hard to be better."

Schoenfeld, entering his first full season as Capitals head coach, appears to believe this. He has his reasons:

* Hunter, the team's veteran center, won't be hampered by a 21-game suspension and a knee injury that kept him out of an additional 10 games at the start of last season.

* Forwards Khristich, Bondra and Pivonka have worked hard during the summer to increase their stamina. So have Steve Konowalchuk, Pat Peake and Jason Allison, young players Schoenfeld projects to be major contributors this season.

* And, of course, there is Juneau. Here for only the last two months of last season, the 26-year-old had an immediate impact, and now with a new, four-year, $8.2 million contract and a full season ahead of him with players Schoenfeld projects as improved, who knows what can be achieved?

"I know relying on potential is a good way for a coach to get his [backside] kicked," Schoenfeld said. "A coach has to get results. A player has to do it. But I don't think we're dreaming in the sky.

"It's true that for some, this is the year they have to do it. Dimitri Khristich, Peter Bondra, Randy Burridge -- with another year of conditioning [after double knee surgery], Peake, Allison, Konowalchuk. Maybe some of them are getting an extended opportunity because this is my first full year. But we saw them improve last season and we think they're going to improve still more."

Already there has been bad news. Working out this week to prepare for training camp, Dave Poulin suffered a first-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and will miss four to six weeks. Last year, Poulin suffered through two-thirds of the season until it was discovered that he has asthma.

But the cornerstone of Schoenfeld's approach since joining the Capitals last spring, after replacing Terry Murray, has been the power of positive thinking.

The former ESPN commentator,who previously coached the Buffalo Sabres and the New Jersey Devils, revitalized the Capitals, who were in danger of not making the playoffs.

The new attitude produced that season-ending run that got Washington into the playoffs, a first-round upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins and a respectable loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers in the second.

"We did two good things last season," Schoenfeld said. "We made the playoffs and we beat Pittsburgh. We lost to New York, and that was a bad feeling. Anyone can go to the dance, but we want to dance when we get there. To me, there is no satisfaction in being close."

Capitals management has been optimistic before. The outlook was rosy at the beginning of last season -- and the season before that.

In 1991-92, the Capitals produced the second-best record in the NHL, 45-27-8, and a team record in goals scored, 330. In 1992-93, minus Dino Ciccarelli, the record dropped to 43-34-7 (tied for second-best) and the goal-scoring dipped to 325.

Last season, the record was 12th best and the goals-for fell to 277.

Major questions exist:

* Can the short-term enthusiasm be maintained through an entire season?

* Can the Capitals' forwards produce goals consistently?

Schoenfeld admits this season is a "big test." Not only for his players but for him.

When he coached New Jersey, he proved to be something of a miracle worker in his first season, taking over the team during the 1987-88 season and leading it to the Eastern Conference finals. But the next year, the Devils finished 27-41-12. Fourteen games into the 1989-90 season, Schoenfeld was fired.

"You can't always see a rosy picture," Schoenfeld said. "But the thing I learned in New Jersey was that it is very important for a coach to maintain his enthusiasm. You're not going to win 84 games, but the inner mood you reflect has to be enthusiastic. In New Jersey, the mood I reflected was that I couldn't handle losing."

"It's a mental process. Last season we presented ideas and the players bought into them. We didn't do anything miraculous, and I can't take credit for their commitment. I don't get more from them, it's the player who buys in and gets more from himself. They make the choice to be great or mediocre. Last season, they bought into it and it worked.

"But this is a big test. We exceeded expectations last year, and that raises expectations this year. We're a long way from being where we want to be. We want to win the Stanley Cup, and we're presenting the idea that each player can work hard and be the player we need, be that player, or he can simply do what he's been doing and float through it."

CAPS TRAINING CAMP

Where: Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton

When: Players report tomorrow; on-ice sessions begin Monday at 9 a.m. Intrasquad scrimmages are scheduled each morning from Wednesday through Sept. 11. All sessions are free and open to the public.

New faces: Right wing Rob Pearson, acquired in an off-season trade with Toronto for Mike Ridley; defenseman Brendan Witt, the Caps' No. 1 draft choice of 1993, who is unsigned but will be in camp; defenseman Nolan Baumgartner, the No. 1 draft choice of 1994, who also is unsigned.

Who's missing: Defenseman and captain Kevin Hatcher, who is unsigned; forward Dave Poulin, who sprained a ligament in his left knee Monday and will be out from four to six weeks.

Exhibition opener: Sept. 13 in Ottawa against the Senators. The only USAir Arena exhibition game is Sept. 23 against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Regular-season opener: Oct. 1 in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.

Home opener: Oct. 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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