STATE OF THE UNION
Building from within has always been a priority for Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee. So it wasn't too surprising that McPhee responded with little hesitation when asked who would fill in as his second-line center behind Nicklas Backstrom now that Sergei Fedorov has departed for Europe.
"We think Brooks Laich can play that position, and he might be able to play it very well," McPhee said. "We certainly like doing stuff like that within the organization, and we're ready to do that if needed. Brooks played that position last year when Sergei was injured."
Laich, who has had back-to-back 20-goal seasons, is one of only two Capitals to have played all 82 games the last two regular seasons, and his streak of 185 consecutive games played is the longest active streak on the team. He's also one of the more likeable and industrious performers on the Capitals roster.
It also should be noted that six players who attended the Capitals week-long summer developmental camp in 2008 played for the big club at some point during the 2008-09 campaign. That list included defenseman Karl Alzner (30 games), goalies Semyon Varlamov (6 regular season; 13 playoff) and Michal Neuvirth (5 games) and forwards Jay Beagle (3 regular season; 4 playoff), Oskar Osala (2 games) and Andrew Gordon (1 game).
While the Capitals lost promising young defenseman Sami Lepisto during the offseason, they reeled in some veteran leadership by signing forwards Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison.
McPhee feels Morrison, who could fill the role of second- or third-line center, has plenty left in the tank.
"We felt he was the right player at the right price," McPhee said. "We're playing on a hunch he has a couple of good years left in him. He hasn't played as well as he's capable of the last few years, but injuries were a part of that. He was forced to do rehab over the summer instead of train but we felt he was playing better later in the season last year and felt that with a real good summer of training under his belt, would be a good player for us in the fall."
"The one thing about tough guys in this League is that their salaries have gone down, so the next question would be, 'Do you need one at all?' Or do you take a page out of Detroit and just go for that talent. It's worked for them. We've thought about this for awhile and it really depends on the makeup of your team. No one is going to intimidate Ovechkin, Backstrom or Semin anyway."
-- Capitals GM George McPhee
The acquisition of Morrison gives coach Bruce Boudreau some options on his first and second lines.
Alzner is a relative lock to assume one of the eight defensive slots available out of training camp, along with Mike Green, Tom Poti, Brian Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn, John Erskine, Milan Jurcina and Jeff Schultz. Semyon Varlamov, who took the League by storm with his scintillating display between the pipes during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring, could be Boudreau's starter to open the season.
Another notable loss to free agency was fan favorite Donald Brashear, who racked up more than 100 penalty minutes for the 13th consecutive season. It doesn't concern McPhee that Brashear's exodus to the New York Rangers leaves the club without a true enforcer.
"The one thing about tough guys in this League is that their salaries have gone down, so the next question would be, 'Do you need one at all?' " McPhee asked. "Or do you take a page out of the Detroit Red Wings and just go for that talent. It's worked for them. We've thought about this for awhile and it really depends on the makeup of your team. No one is going to intimidate (Alex) Ovechkin (72 PIM), Backstrom or (Alexander) Semin (77 PIM) anyway."
Offensively, the Capitals have three players who averaged a point per game last season in Ovechkin (1.33), Backstrom (1.03) and Semin (1.27). The departure of Viktor Kozlov to Europe could provide captain Chris Clark an opportunity to open the season on the top line alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom -- that is if Boudreau doesn't opt to have Knuble there instead. Clark missed 64 games in 2007-08 and 46 more last season with injuries but is primed for a solid training camp.
The Capitals have been stockpiling their minor-league system for years and have reaped the benefits.
The team has no need to look outside the organization when it comes to replenishing the tank as was evidenced last year with the play of rookies Alzner, Sean Collins, Chris Bourque, Oskar Osala, Andrew Gordon, Beagle and goalies Neuvirth and Varlamov.
In fact, with the exception of Alzner, who played in 30 regular-season games last season, all other aforementioned players are still considered rookies entering the 2009-10 campaign.
Here's a look at some of the more intriguing prospects within Washington's pipeline:
Semyon Varlamov -- Varlamov, selected 23rd by the Caps in 2006, became the youngest Russian-born goalie to start in the NHL and first to win his NHL debut at Montreal in more than 30 years. He's likely to be with the big club this season but whether he'll start is still unknown. Varlamov went 7-6 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.
John Carlson -- The 6-foot-2, 218-pound defenseman was "easily" the most NHL-ready of the two dozen players in attendance at the Capitals developmental camp this summer, according to Boudreau. Carlson will have to beat out one or two veterans if he has any intention of making the roster out of training camp. Still, acting as a mainstay on the blue line for the team's AHL affiliate in Hershey this season isn't a bad alternative.
Oskar Osala -- Osala played in 75 games for Hershey last season and posted 37 points and a rookie-leading 23 goals. The 6-foot-4 left wing suited up two games for the Capitals last season and was one of only two players (Lepisto was the other) from Finland to play for Washington in 2008-09. With a strong training camp, there's a good chance Osala could be in line to earn a roster spot. If not, he'll likely play one more season in Hershey.
Francois Bouchard -- The 35th pick in the 2006 draft registered 15 goals and 35 points in his first full season with Hershey. The younger brother of the Minnesota Wild's Pierre-Marc Bouchard is a good puck distributor and possesses an accurate shot. Look for Bouchard, a right wing, to continue his maturation with the Bears this season and possibly earn some time with the Capitals.
Mathieu Perreault -- Despite his 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame, the 177th pick in '06 spent his first full season in Hershey last year and produced a rookie-leading 50 points in 77 games while playing on a line with Osala and Bouchard. He made a great impression at the Caps' developmental camp in July and could earn some time with the big club in 2009-10.
How successful have the Washington Capitals been on draft day?
Consider the fact nine former first-round picks played for the Capitals this past season -- tops in the League. When McPhee selected Marcus Johansson in this year's first round (24th overall), it marked the club's 15th first-round choice in the last eight years.
No wonder McPhee makes a living building a franchise from within. He takes pride in the fact 14 players who wore a Capitals' jersey in 2008-09 were originally drafted by the team and four of them -- Ovechkin (drafted in 2004), Backstrom (2006), Semin (2002) and Mike Green (2004) -- were the team's top four point producers.
Here's a synopsis of the seven selections made by the Capitals at the 2009 Draft in Montreal this past June:
Marcus Johansson -- Johansson, a two-way center, will return home to play for Farjestad of the Swedish Elite League, where he still has two years remaining on his contract. McPhee admitted Johansson will decide if he's ready to make the jump to North America following the 2009-10 campaign in Europe. One of seven Swedes drafted in the first round this year, Johansson recorded 5 goals and 5 assists in 45 games to help his team win the Swedish championship last season. He was also a member of silver medal-winning Team Sweden at the 2009 World Junior Championship.
Dmitri Orlov -- The 6-foot, 198-pound defenseman from Novokuznetsk, Russia, played 16 games for his hometown team in the Kontinental Hockey League last season and was named one of Russia's top three performers at the 2009 Under-18 World Championship.
Cody Eakin -- Eakin had 24 goals and 48 points in 54 games with the Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos, earning Rookie of the Year honors. He was also the MVP of the Canadian Hockey League's Top Prospects Game after scoring two goals.
Patrick Wey -- The club's fourth-round selection had 34 points in 58 games for Waterloo of the United States Hockey League. He'll play at Boston College for coach Jerry York (McPhee's college coach) in the fall.
Brett Flemming -- The 6-foot, 172-pound defenseman from Regina, Saskatchewan, played 64 games for Mississauga St. Michael's in the Ontario Hockey League, posting 3 goals and 28 points.
Garrett Mitchell -- The right wing played for the hometown Regina Pats of the WHL, posting 10 goals, 15 points and 140 penalty minutes in 71 games.
Benjamin Casavant -- Casavant, a native of St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, had a team-leading 39 goals and 80 points in 68 games for Prince Edward Island of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.