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A Sweet Start

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
During the weekend of Dec. 9-10, we had an opportunity to head north and take in a couple Hershey Bears games, both against East Division rival Norfolk. We also had a chance to have a long chat with Bears head coach Bruce Boudreau, who gave us the benefit of his insight on a number of Bears-related topics.

The Bears swept that weekend series from the Admirals, and Hershey continues to rank among the AHL’s elite this season. The Bears are 18-3-3-4 in their first 28 games. Their record is tied for second best in both the league and the East Division.

Hershey is on the road in Albany tonight (Dec. 20) to start a grueling stretch in which it will play eight games in 12 days. When the Bears host the Toronto Marlies at Giant Center on Sat. Dec. 23, the team will celebrate the 5,000th game in its illustrious history.

Has that been one of the hardest things for you this year, just dealing with the high number of veterans and players on roster?

I’ve never had [this problem], and to me it’s the toughest thing. I just worry about it so much because I am so big on the room being really good. If the room is really good, usually good things happen if there is no infighting. It’s really a difficult job to me to keep the room happy when you’ve had 28 guys every day since training camp. I worry about it more than I should. I should make a decision and get to sleep. I was up all night. I think of 10 good reasons why I should play a guy, then I think of 10 good reasons why he shouldn’t be playing.

There are coaches who don’t [care about sitting players]. I could name five coaches right now who wouldn’t care. But you take Glen [Hanlon], who is a caring guy about his team and I think I am very similar along those lines. It bothers us to sit guys, maybe me a little bit more so than Glen because when I was in the NHL, I sat all the time. He was always a number one goalie or a real big part of the team. I know what’s like to sit. and I hated it.

Having won it all last season, do you find that teams are gunning more for you this year?

I wouldn’t say gunning for us. It’s hard to say; our record is 16-3. I do know that for ourselves, including the office staff, our bar is completely raised. We thought it was raised last year, but now we get in a shootout loss and we’re really despondent after the game.  I think that says a lot about the character and the caliber of the team that they don’t want to lose anything. They don’t want to lose at all. We’re going to lose our fair share. But it certainly makes it tougher. I think that’s the best thing about winning: now everybody wants to do it again.

The East Division this year has three teams that are just rolling. Have you ever seen that in this league, where you’ve got three great teams clustered like that? It’s going to make  for a great season and playoffs.

I’m not thinking ahead to playoffs yet, but Wilkes-Barre is on the bus for six hours yesterday and they come home and they beat the best team [Chicago] in the other division. And half of their players are up [in Pittsburgh]. It bodes so well for how good this division really is. That is the big thing, is how good this division really is. We win today, I think we’re first overall. Norfolk wins today, they’re tied for first overall. It is going to make for a tough ride.

As a coach, you really have to draw the line sometimes. Do you fight for that first place [finish] to avoid the second vs. third [place playoff] match-up at this stage? Or do you just go and you keep doing what you’re doing, and wherever you fall, you’ve got to beat good teams anyway? After Christmas and coming into February and March, those things will be questions that you really have to [answer]. The inner self wants to win every game, but you’ve got to sit there and weigh the good against the bad, I think.

Christmas is coming. What is the one thing you would like Santa Claus to leave under the tree for your hockey team?

A day off.  From the 19th to the 31st [of December], we have the 24th and the 25th off, and every other day we’re either traveling a good length or we’re playing.

I’d like continued good health and make the coach have the problems sitting guys. We’ve tried to move it around where guys aren’t sitting too long, because it makes for a happy room. But if that could continue, I’d be happy.

altHow about your assessment of some specific players? Let’s start with Eric Fehr.

Fehr is night and day above last year. You saw last night’s game, he is not only getting the ability to get into people’s minds a little bit, but he is also hitting and hurting. He is controlling the puck in the corners, and he is still out there scoring the big goal. I think his improvement is dramatic. People said he had a good year [in 2005-06] with 25 goals as a first-year guy. But I think his overall all-around play is dramatically improved this year, his strength and his willingness to win battles.

I think the world of Tomas Fleischmann. It depends on where you want to play him. He didn’t play anywhere near the way he can play last night, but if you had seen him in Norfolk, it was like he said, ‘I’m just going to have the puck tonight and nobody else can have it.’ And that’s the way he played. I think he is going to play in the NHL. He is just a confidence step away from being a full-timer up there.

I think [Jeff Schultz] is going to be a good player. He is learning how to take the man a little bit more, and be a little bit more aggressive. What he has learned so far, which has been great, is closing the gaps [and using] his big reach [to deny] time and space. Next year when he is in the NHL and guys have so much speed and they can go around him, he will be able to get right in their face and not give them a chance to open up. He has done a great job with that.

Dave Steckel is still to me a complete player. I don’t play him on the power play, and he still has 17 points. He is part of what I believe is the best penalty-killing unit in the league. If you take away the 5-on-3 goals we have allowed against us, I think we have done a phenomenal job. And then look at the pluses of how many goals we score shorthanded compared to other teams.

Chris Bourque has matured. He is coming along really well. He is a lot better with the game plan than he was last year. He is the one guy on our team that we can put on the fourth line, and yet he still plays on the power play and the penalty kill so he gets ideal ice time. Then he can fill in on the first line or the second line, he can fill in at all positions. Now I’ve got him playing a little bit of center. I think his improvement is dramatic, as is [Jonas] Johansson’s.

Jo-Jo is skilled, he just has to be able to put the package together. You take last night, the opportunities he had to score, and he doesn’t score. He is one of those guys you see every year, in practice you can’t stop him. He outskates everybody and can do what he wants to do, but he hasn’t put that package together. If he ever puts it together, he will be a pretty dynamic player. He played 21 minutes last night, so he is getting every opportunity to shine.

Kyle Wilson seems like a pretty good story.

Good story, good player. Granted, I’ve seen him four games. How many players have you seen get called up to the NHL who have done great the first two weeks of the season and then all of a sudden level off? He shows great poise. He sees the ice with the puck. In his own zone, he knows what he is doing. He is six-foot, he competes. There is a lot to like about him. That’s why he is playing again today. We want to see as much of him before we make a decision on him as we can. [Ed: The “decision” referred to in the final sentence is whether to keep Wilson in Hershey or return him to South Carolina].

When do you have to make a decision?

There is no real date. [Joey] Tenute will probably be ready next week, but he is going to have to earn his way back. We’ve also got Matt Hendricks, who I think is a great player. Not a puck-handling great player, but he has desire, is tenacious, can skate and he does all the things that you need to do to win. That’s there. I think he is a capable fourth-line NHL guy. But there are a lot of them. You’re looking for top six NHL guys.

Last year during the playoffs, you were so deep and so strong up the middle. You had Kris Beech, Brooks Laich, Steckel and Boyd Gordon. Your top centers from last year’s Calder Cup run are up in Washington now, and Klepis is up now and he can play center. Has that been an adjustment for you, to have pretty much a whole new set of guys up the middle here?

Absolutely. Tenute was a fourth line center last year, and he was capable of going to the first or second line in spots. Steckel is the perfect third line center, the stopper center, the checking center. But you lose Laich, you lose Beech, and you lose Gordon, who played right wing in the playoffs but center most of the time. Hendricks is a natural winger, and we just got Kyle Wilson last week. That’s what I thought our glaring weakness was. They’ve bandaged it together and done pretty well, but that’s the question mark still when we look at the future of this team.

Do we have the depth at center? I really believe to win on a consistent basis you need that. Obviously, you take away the goalie because he has got to be good no matter what. But center was the reason we won last year. Our depth at center was so much better than every other team’s that they just couldn’t handle us. They were big and strong, and they could play both ends of the ice. I’d like to have five centers in the lineup every game, with one playing the wing and four down the middle. Centers can play the wing an awful lot easier than wingers can play center. It’s something I’d like to have happen, but it’s a seven- or eight-month process and you don’t want to jump to conclusions and panic. Our record is what it is; we don’t have to panic. We can find the right situation. Maybe Wilson is the guy, who knows? Maybe Hendricks is good enough to stay there and do it himself, too. Then you’ve got Tenute, so maybe we have four good centers. Maybe they grow into the job. We don’t know. We tried [Steve] Werner there for the first 10 games. Right now, he wasn’t ready to do that job. We’ll see.

Is Werner playing center in South Carolina?

I don’t know where he is playing, but he has got three goals in two games. That’s good for him. A lot of it is confidence. I think he stays there for two months hopefully, and just plays up a storm and learns to play professionally. It’s tough coming out of college and all of a sudden being on a third line, fourth line. When you’ve got 15 forwards and you’re trying to make a move every night to get everybody in the lineup, it’s tough.

Talking about guys like Hendricks and maybe Wilson getting better, you hope that guys are going to be better in March than they are in November and December. Maybe they can sort of evolve into the kind of player you need.

That’s why this team we’re playing tonight scares me, because they have so many first-year guys. They’re good right now. How much better are [David] Bolland, [Michael] Blunden and [Bryan] Bickell going to be in March? That’s what I worry about, because they are big and they are strong. But our guys are going to get better.

The great thing about us is that our core guys are really good. You’re not going to get a better general than Lawrence Nycholat on the point. You won’t find two better left wingers back-to-back in the league than [Alexandre] Giroux and Fleischmann. They’re the two best, I would think. I know there is [Darren] Haydar and [Jason] Krog in Chicago. Krog to me is the elite guy. We’ve seen Haydar; when they went head-to-head [in the 2006 Calder Cup finals], Fleischmann was better. And Giroux is on his way to at least 40 goals if all things stay according to Hoyle.

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