The Washington Capitals opened practice yesterday with unabated optimism and dreams of success in the NHL, even though they are again in the position of hoping for more offense and have not yet signed Peter Bondra, who led the Caps and the league in goal scoring last season.
"I think we're going to be fine," said Capitals general manager David Poile. "I think we're a team on the rise. I think we'll be better next month than we are this month, and I think we'll be better at the end of the season than we are at the start."
The Capitals have 53 players on their opening roster. They begin with their 1993 No. 1 draft choice, rookie Brendan Witt, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound defenseman who was penciled in to be a starter here two years ago, signed after two years of negotiations.
They also begin with 19-year-old defenseman Nolan Baumgartner, their 1994 No. 1 pick, also showing promise after proving himself the best defenseman in junior hockey last season.
Also back are two other young defensemen, Sergei Gonchar, 21, and Ken Klee, 24, who were impressive with the club last season.
With veterans Sylvain Cote, Calle Johansson, Jim Johnson, Joe Reekie and Mark Tinordi, there is little doubt where the Caps' strength is expected to come from.
Jim Carey and Olie Kolzig, both 21, make up what is thought to be the youngest goaltending tandem in the league, and offer unlimited promise.
Carey was the NHL's hottest rookie over the last 30 games of the regular season, keying a Capitals run that took them from 3-10-5 when he was called up to 22-18-8. His contribution was an 18-6-3 run that began with a seven-game unbeaten streak.
"We're not a team without questions," said Poile. "There is no doubt we're counting on the continued improvement of our young players. Our goaltenders have the potential to be great. Our defense has as much depth as any in the NHL. Our forwards -- we have to improve. We're still looking for help there. We just haven't been in the right area to make a deal."
Which means signing Bondra, and Michal Pivonka, who assisted on many of Bondra's 34 goals in the 48-game season.
Poile said yesterday that he has not spoken to Bondra's agent, Rich Winter, since before the draft in July. He said Winter has asked for a number of things from the Capitals before negotiations begin.
Last night, Bondra said he did not know what those things were, but added, "I just think they are each just waiting for the other one to call because the last time they talked, the offers were far apart."
The Capitals last offer reportedly was in the neighborhood of $900,000, a little more than double the $449,000 that Bondra made last year.
Winter is on record as having said these negotiations should be very simple.
"Peter was Washington's MVP last season and should be paid in accordance with the team's salary structure." Thus suggesting he deserves to be paid at least as well as center Joe Juneau, who tied Bondra as the team's points leader but was just seventh in the league in his specialty, assists, and is making $2 million.
"I don't compare myself with Joe Juneau or Mark Tinordi [$2.2 million] or anyone else," said Bondra. "My agent, I guess, he has to do some comparing, but I know everyone is different and I don't even want to talk about it because it is tough to compare.
"I am here and my first goal is that I'd like to sign with the Capitals. I think about it every day. It is what I want. I am trying not to worry, because around the league, I hear a lot of people aren't signed. So I just go day to day and do whatever I have to do."
He and Pivonka, who is also unsigned, have taken out insurance policies to cover training camp .
Yesterday, center Steve Konowalchuk suffered a first-degree left shoulder separation. He will be off skates for one week and will have no contact work for 10 days.