Two days before players report for training camp, the owner proclaimed “the rebuild is over” in an interview Tuesday with Associated Press reporters and editors. After consecutive last-place, low-payroll seasons following the 2004-05 lockout, Leonsis feels the strategy of building with young talent is heading toward fruition.
“Every person in the organization’s expectation is that we will make the playoffs,” Leonsis said. “Because we improved a lot … and a lot of teams around us didn’t.”
The rebuilding project has centered around rising superstar Alex Ovechkin, who already has 98 goals in two NHL seasons and will turn 22 during training camp. Ovechkin was the lone star in his first season with the team, Washington’s worst in decades, but the Capitals have slowly but surely given him a better supporting cast that includes Alexander Semin and 2007-08 arrivals Michael Nylander, Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov and Nicklas Backstrom.
Despite the additions, the Capitals are on pace to spend about US$42 million on salaries this year, about the midpoint of the NHL’s $34.3 million to $50.3 million allowable range, giving Leonsis what he called “optionality” in a possible playoff run.
“What’s happened is what I envisioned,” Leonsis said. “We’re going to wake up one day and be a good team. And then if they stay healthy and the chemistry’s good and the coaching’s good and you get a couple of breaks, we could be a really good team.
“We’re under the cap. We have a lot of assets. I could see us during the season making trades. We’ve reached that point now where we’re a team going up with good cap management. We have ‘optionality.’ We’re very well-positioned in the new NHL. We’re not a whining team.”
Some fans have done their share of whining since Leonsis unloaded salaries in 2004, breaking up an expensive, star-studded, underperforming roster that led to $30 million of red ink. The lockout followed, and the fallout was predictable: Paying customers were slow to return to see a team of raw players destined to sit in the Southeast Division cellar.
Last year, despite the presence of Ovechkin, the Capitals averaged 13,930 fans, 27th among the 30 NHL clubs, in a city where the sport remains a hard sell. On Monday night, two players attended an event aimed at getting season-ticket holders to renew, and forward Matt Pettinger recently worked the phones with a similar appeal.
“Hockey in Washington has always been challenged,” Leonsis said. “It’s a tough market that I have to believe in, that we can unlock the code.”
Leonsis inherited the equivalent of only 2,900 season ticket holders when he bought the team from Abe Pollin in 1999 and increased it to a peak of 11,300 during Jaromir Jagr’s first season in 2001-02. This season, Leonsis said he expects about 9,000 and that revenues will increase about 12 per cent from last year, even though the ticket prices rank below the league average.
“I need another 2,500 season-ticket seats,” Leonsis said. “What that would do is tip it, it would give us scarcity of tickets and allow us finally to raise prices. Our ticket prices, for the most part are exactly the same as they were in 1999.”
Leonsis said the Capitals “might never break even” financially, but added that the franchise right now could probably sell for at least $225 million, compared to the $85 million he paid for it eight years ago. He also said the league’s new collective bargaining agreement assures that his team won’t bleed money the way it once did.
“The CBA is what I call a contract for the owners not to hurt themselves,” Leonsis said. “You have to be a moron to really get financially hurt in the new CBA.”
Beyond competition with the NFL’s Redskins and the NBA’s Wizards, Leonsis cited three factors that hurt the Capitals’ attendance: traffic, scheduling and the lack of a Stanley Cup.
Traffic is an issue because the Capitals draw many fans from the suburbs, and not even Virginia governor Tim Kaine’s visit Monday at the Capitals practice facility can do much to help. Scheduling has been a problem since the move to the Southeast Division; Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Florida and Carolina just don’t draw the way Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers do.
Winning a Cup is something Leonsis can do something about. Even though the Capitals had been a playoff regular in the 1980s and 1990s, Leonsis realized that wasn’t good enough.
“I didn’t want to be a good team anymore,” Leonsis said. “If you look for the most part, the teams who got really, really good were really, really bad. That’s the nature of professional sports. It’s a very difficult decision to say, ‘We have to get bad, we have to strip this house down to its foundation and rebuild it to be great.”‘
“I could be wrong,” Leonsis added. “Time will tell – but at least I’ve got a plan.”