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Busy Day in Bear Country

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
HERSHEY, Pa. – In the middle of a hot summer day, the inside of an ice arena is a great place to be. For some three dozen young hockey hopefuls with visions of an NHL career, it is the only place to be as they get a jumpstart on the season ahead. The Washington Capitals opened their annual summer development camp here Sunday night, with 22 Washington prospects and more than a dozen other free agent hopefuls in attendance.

After physical examinations late Sunday afternoon, the players took to the ice in the evening. The players were split into two groups for Monday’s sessions, with one group on the ice and the other doing off-ice work. Later, the second group took to the ice while the first worked out off the ice. The two squads reconvened at Giant Center on Monday night for an informal scrimmage.

Among the higher profile attendees are 2004 first-round defenseman Jeff Schultz, 2005 first-round defenseman Sasha Pokulok, 2004 second-rounder Chris Bourque, 2004 third-rounder Sami Lepisto and 2006 second-rounders Michal Neuvirth, Francois Bouchard and Keith Seabrook. Also in attendance are 2003 third-rounder Stephen Werner, a native of Chevy Chase, Md., and Luke Lynes, a 2006 fourth-rounder who resides in Ellicott City, Md.

“It’s an orientation for the kids to try and expedite their learning and [find out] how to train as a pro,” said Capitals vice president and general manager George McPhee. “Most of these guys think they’re in shape until they see the pros, and then they realize they’re not even close. We’re trying to help them with their nutrition, get to know them a little bit, find out if there is anything we can do to help them get better. It is up to them to train and do what it takes to be a pro, but they’re not alone in this and we’re here to help them.

“Training camp is often so competitive that you don’t have the luxury of sitting down with a kid and getting to know him. So that’s what this week is about. It has worked for us before and it is a fun week.”

While the prospects were on the ice having their fun, it was very much a business day for the Capitals. The team learned Monday that center Nicklas Backstrom, the team’s top choice (fourth overall) in last month’s 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver, will not come to North America for the 2006-07 season. Backstrom has opted to remain in his native Sweden and play another season for Brynas of the Swedish Elite League.

Earlier in the day, McPhee was asked about Backstrom’s status.

“We talked to him on Friday,” said McPhee. “We told him we had a similar conversation with Alex [Ovechkin] and his family last year. [We told him] we are a fun young team, there is no pressure, and we’d like him to come over and have some fun playing. And if at any time he is not comfortable, he is in over his head, or he is not happy with the way he is playing, we will send him back [to Sweden].

“They are basically processing all that and they will let us know, sometime this week I guess.”

After learning of Backstrom’s decision, McPhee made a statement.

“Nicklas feels he needs another full year of development before coming to the NHL,” he said. “He would like to do what Alex [Ovechkin] did and come over as a 20-year-old. We appreciate that he was decisive and respect his decision.”

The Capitals also announced on Monday that they have come to terms on a two-year contract worth $1.8 million with defenseman Shaone Morrisonn. The 23-year-old blueliner gets a sizeable raise over his approximately $650,000 salary from last season, and he and the Caps avoid arbitration in the process.

“He played very well last year,” said McPhee of Morrisonn, “and became one of our steadiest defensemen. He has great mobility for the new NHL game. He closes on players really quickly, and he defends really well. He will just get better in that department, but he is really good at that right now. We’d like him to generate more offense, see if that can come around and make him a more well-rounded player. But the most important thing is he is very good defensively and he is mobile.”

Besides McPhee, several other members of the organization’s brass was in attendance for Monday’s sessions. Also watching from the Giant Center stands were Capitals head coach Glen Hanlon, Capitals director of player personnel Brian MacLellan, Capitals physiologist Jack Blatherwick, Hershey Bears head coach Bruce Boudreau and Bears assistant coach Bob Woods. Caps scout Steve Richmond, a former head coach in the USHL, ran Monday’s sessions on the ice.

Hanlon was pleased to learn that Morrisonn was in the fold.

“I think when we watched him play two years ago, we projected that he was going to play in the NHL,” assessed Hanlon, referring to the lockout season of 2004-05 when Morrisonn played for the AHL Portland Pirates. “We didn’t project that it was going to be that quickly, as far as playing that many minutes and being that consistent. I think the opportunity and where we were as far as trying to develop players certainly helped. I don’t think it would have happened that quickly if he were playing for Carolina or somewhere where he wouldn’t have played 20-some minutes [a night]. But in saying that, a lot of guys were given the opportunity, it’s up to them to be able to handle it.

“I just think because of the new rules where so much emphasis is on skating, and that is likely his strength, his ability to skate and turn and pivot. He is perfect for the NHL game.”

Between the on-ice sessions, Hanlon also addressed the recent departure of former Capitals captain Jeff Halpern. Halpern signed a four-year contract worth $8 million with the Dallas Stars last week.

“We wish all of our players financial success, and he had likely his best shot in his career at free agency and he chose to take a look at all of his options,” said Hanlon. “If that is what a player chooses to do, then I am happy for him. He is going to be missed. He has been a Capital for a long time and we will have to find a way to replace him.”

With the mention of replacing Halpern, the next question naturally related to who will be the next captain of the Washington Capitals.

“Well, the process has started,” admitted Hanlon. “The real question is, ‘Is [Alex] Ovechkin ready to do it?’ There is no getting around that. That is the question.

“These are the different thought processes. Do you take somebody aside and do what [Calgary] did with Jarome Iginla? I think it was [Craig] Conroy had it and then take it away from them. Or do you explain to the person, ‘Look, it’s just a matter of time?’ Or do you do what we did when I was in Detroit with [Steve] Yzerman, when we had [Harold] Snepsts and Mel Bridgman, and lots or really good leaders in that group, yet they named Yzerman captain at [the age of] 21, and they just worked with him? That’s my thought process, but the final decision hasn’t been made.”

Notes: McPhee on ongoing discussions with other restricted free agents and arbitration-eligible players: “We’re talking, but I wouldn’t say we’re close with any of them.”

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