The Washington Capitals are easy targets. Just look at them.
Almost every other team in the Eastern Conference has made noticeable improvements, but the Capitals go into this season with beautiful, new uniforms covering the same old problems -- and some new ones.
Their top scoring line of a year ago is gone: Dimitri Khristich has been traded; Peter Bondra, the NHL's leading goal scorer, and Michal Pivonka, the team's third-leading scorer, are holding out.
They have Ken Klee and Jim Johnson, two defensemen, playing forward.
They have five rookies, two good, but young goaltenders and no proven 40-goal scorers -- or 30-goal scorers, for that matter, or even 20-goal scorers in recent history.
So, with the St. Louis Blues coming to town for tomorrow night's season opener, why is this team smiling?
"We're excited," said Washington defenseman Calle Johansson. "We have a lot of young guys who are hungry to prove themselves. They want to show what they can do. And we have a lot of old guys, like me, who want to inspire the right things from the young guys."
In baseball, spring is the time for optimism. In hockey, it's obviously the first week of October.
The Capitals were 22-18-8 a year ago and like to point out their regular-season record was the same as the Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils.
But Washington needed a Herculean effort from rookie goaltender Jim Carey, who went 18-6-3 down the stretch, to produce that record, and could not sustain the performance in the postseason, where the Capitals could not put away the first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite taking 3-1 lead.
"We got away from our style of play," said coach Jim Schoenfeld. "We were aware of the problem, but couldn't get the message through to the players. . . . That experience should help us do our job better this year, but
you'll have to ask the players if they remember it. Sometimes we forget in a hurry because it's painful to remember."
This season, the line centered by Joe Juneau with Steve Konowalchuk and Keith Jones is the only one returning intact.
"Obviously, we're missing two big guys," said Jones. "When you lose two regulars from your lineup, it obviously throws a wrench into your goal scoring. But on the positive side, you can look around the room and see guys accepting the challenge. It's a chance to step up and be the man."
One who recognizes the challenge is rookie Jason Allison, who played 12 games for the Capitals last season.
"With the guys we've got here, we can win," Allison said. "But it's pretty clear, with Michal and Peter out, me and Martin [Gendron] and Patty [Peake] and Stefan [Ustorf] are going to have to step up and score. At least two of us have to produce big, or all of us have to pitch in with our share."
Juneau, captain Dale Hunter and Allison will be the team's three centers; veterans and rookies alike will revolve around them.
"It won't be as unbalanced as it sounds," said Schoenfeld. "We're just not going to have four set lines. Instead of a fourth line, those guys will be moved in and out of the other three."
The good news is:
* Carey (2.13 goals-against-average and a .913 save percentage) and Olie Kolzig (2.49, .902) have looked better and better in the preseason.
* The defense, with Johansson, Sylvain Cote, Joe Reekie and Mark Tinordi providing the anchors, is sound.
* Rookie defensemen Brendan Witt and Nolan Baumgartner have looked dependable.
* Juneau has had his best training camp since joining the Capitals two years ago, and veterans such as Hunter and Kelly Miller continue to excel.
* A mixed blessing is that in the final preseason game, a 1-1 tie with Florida, Johnson, the ex-defenseman, graded out as the best forward over 60 minutes.
"I like our goaltending," said Capitals general manager David Poile. "I like our defense. Our forwards are full of potential. With the loss of several individuals, it remains to be seen how many goals we are going to score from our forwards. But it's not fair to judge right now. I don't know how you ever know what you have until you actually see them play over a period of time."
Poile continues his efforts to sign Bondra, who scored 34 goals in 47 games last season, and Pivonka, who had 10 goals and 23 assists. There was no movement yesterday.
With Bondra and Pivonka unsigned, it is perhaps unfair to ask the Capitals if they are a better team now than they were a year ago. Hunter answered this way:
"We're going with young guys, and they're good players. Some TTC of them got a little experience last year, and they'll be better this year. As far as the Rangers and New Jersey and whoever, honest to God, down deep, I know we can beat them. To me, it's just my gut feeling. Bring on St. Louis. We can beat them. All we have to do is go out and do it."
New NHL rules
Cross-checking: A minor, double minor or major penalty, at the discretion of the referee, shall be imposed on a player who "cross-checks" an opponent. [For the first time] a double-minor penalty must be assessed for cross-checks delivered to the neck or head area -- unless a major or match penalty is assessed.
Clipping: In football for years, clipping has come to the NHL. A major penalty and a game misconduct will be called on a player who attempts to cut an opposing player's knees out from under him by delivering a low hit by throwing his body at or below a players knees (front or back), charging or falling into the player's knees (behind, front or side).
Misconduct purge: A player who plays 41 consecutive regular-season games without being assessed a stick-related major and a game misconduct, will have his previous game misconduct penalties removed from his current record -- though they will remain part of his historic record. The same procedure will be followed on boarding and/or checking-from-behind majors and game misconducts. Before the beginning of the Stanley Cup finals, a player will have his current stick-related, boarding and checking-from-behind game misconducts removed from his current playoff record.
No. Player ... ... ... ... ... Pos.
Jason Allison .. .. ... ... C
Craig Berube ... .. ... ... LW
Mike Eagles ... ... ... ... C
Martin Gendron .. .. .. ... RW
Dale Hunter ... ... ... ... C
Keith Jones ... ... ... ... RW
Joe Juneau ... ... .. .. .. C
23 Kevin Kaminski ... .. .. .. C
Steve Konowalchuk ... .. .. LW
10 Kelly Miller ... ... ... .. RW
Pat Peake ... ... ... .. .. C
16 Stefan Ustorf ... ... .. .. C
Nolan Baumgartner ... .. .. D
3 Sylvain Cote ... ... ... ... D
Sergei Gonchar ... .. .. .. D
Calle Johansson ... .. .. .. D
Jim Johnson ... ... .. .. .. D
2 Ken Klee ... ... ... ... ... D
29 Joe Reekie .. .. .. ... ... D
24 Mark Tinordi ... .. ... ... D
Brendan Witt ... .. ... ... D
Jim Carey ... ... .. .. ... G
37 Olie Kolzig ... ... ... ... G
General manager: David Poile. Head coach: Jim Schoenfeld. Assistant coaches: Keith Allain, Tod Button.