After nearly two weeks off because of the NHL’s Olympic hiatus, the Washington Capitals reconvened last Thursday for a series of practices in preparation for the final seven weeks of the regular season. Even as the Capitals ready themselves for the final 26 games of the 2005-06 season, management has begun to put together the pieces that will comprise the 2006-07 edition of the Capitals.
Since the start of February, Washington has resigned four of its veteran players to contract extensions. Most notably, goaltender Olie Kolzig was inked to a two-year extension. Kolzig has been a Capital since 1989, longer than any other player in franchise history. The 35-year-old netminder is the face of the organization and getting him signed was a top priority.
Rugged right wing Chris Clark was also signed to a two-year extension. Obtained from Calgary last summer, Clark is in his first year with the Caps. Two veteran defensemen also in their first seasons in Washington – Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir – signed one-year extensions last week.
Clark, Heward and Muir are all enjoying the best seasons of their NHL careers. Clark, who turns 30 on March 8, spent the first five seasons of his NHL career with Calgary. He grew up with that Flames team, enduring a long rebuilding process that ultimately landed the team in the 2004 Stanley Cup finals. The Connecticut native was disappointed to learn he had been traded, but has come to enjoy playing in the Eastern Conference where he is closer to his family and the travel is less taxing. He and his family have also grown fond of the Washington area.
“It’s wonderful,” Clark replies when asked what he thinks of being a Capital, two-thirds of the way through his first season in Washington. “I like it and my family likes it. And with the new practice facility [slated to open in late summer, 2006] we get to move closer to DC and really experience that. It’s tough living out near [Piney Orchard] because we don’t get to experience the DC life with all the monuments and the sightseeing. So next year, we will get to do a lot more of that.”
Prior to this season, Heward’s last taste of NHL action came in 2001-02 with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He spent the last three seasons playing professionally in Switzerland, not sure if he would ever again play in the NHL. Not only did he come back to the United States and make the Capitals’ roster out of training camp, he has averaged nearly 23 minutes a night, ranking among the NHL’s top 40 in average ice time per contest. His strong first half put him in the unique position of getting a contract offer before the start of the summer.
“I’ve always had to go through summers not knowing what is going to happen,” says Heward, who will celebrate his 35th birthday late in March. “You have to wait until the July deadline for free agency and it makes the summers a lot more difficult not knowing where you are going. Now, having put this aside, it’s a great feeling to know that a team knew halfway through the year that you were going to be a part of their organization and that they were happy with what you did. For me, I’m really ecstatic that they feel I can help the team out and I’m also excited that I don’t have to go through another summer of not knowing where I am going to be and what is happening. Family-wise, it makes it easier. You can get your daughter back into school and you can do all those things that take a lot of time if you’re not signed.”
Like Heward, Muir has had a nomadic career. The 32-year-old native of Winnipeg played collegiate hockey at the University of New Hampshire, following in the footsteps of former Capitals Rod Langway and Bobby Gould. Muir went undrafted and signed with Edmonton after three years at U-NH. This is Muir’s 10th NHL season and it will mark the first time in those 10 campaigns that he did not have to split the season between the NHL and the AHL. Washington is his seventh NHL stop, and he is also happy about the prospect of playing here in 2006-07.
“To be able to be part of a growing process here in Washington and to be included in that is definitely exciting for me,” says Muir. “I am just kind of relishing the moment and hoping I can help out as best I can and get things going here.”
Also like Heward, Muir was happy about the extension from a family as well as hockey perspective.
“I can’t lie to you; my wife is pretty excited,” Muir admits. “To be able to get it done and to know next year where we are going to be and have that kind of stability for one year is really exciting. It was a huge contributing factor in coming back. We really like the Washington area and the organization from the top down has been nothing but first class. I am really proud to be associated with them and I am excited for next year.”
While Clark came to Washington as an established NHL player, both Heward and Muir were among several journeyman defensemen who were competing for roster spots when the Capitals opened training camp last September. Both blueliners performed well in camp and in preseason games, nailing down roster spots and holding them since. Muir scored at least a point in each of the five preseason games in which he appeared.
“I talked to some people in the organization, George included, and they said, ‘There is opportunity here,’” he says now, remembering what led him to sign with Washington in the first place last August. “That’s all I was looking for. It was a situation where you can’t ask for much and opportunity was the best you could ask for. I am just glad I was able to seize that opportunity and make the best of it. People held true to their word and were honest.”
Muir’s contract extension came nearly 10 years to the day after he signed his first NHL pact, a five-game amateur tryout contract with the Oilers on Feb. 29, 1996. He was later traded for Bill Guerin and for Michael Nylander in separate deals, and played on a Stanley Cup winner with Colorado in 2001. Coming into the 2005-06 season, the most games Muir had played in the NHL in any single campaign was 54 in 1998-99. That was one of three seasons in which he played for two separate NHL teams and one of two seasons in which he played for four different pro clubs altogethr. Muir has played 50 games with the 2005-06 Capitals, totaling career highs with four goals and 16 points and averaging just over 20 minutes a night. He has had to prove himself at every stop.
“You kind of like that,” he says. “It makes you play better; it makes you better as a player and a person, too. I’ve been through a bit of adversity in my career; 10 years is a long time. I’ve been pretty nomadic, got to see a lot of different places, meet a lot of people and play under a lot of different coaching systems. Another deciding factor in staying here was [head coach] Glen [Hanlon] and the system that he runs. The type of person and the type of coach that he is and the way everything is run here is another reason to look forward to staying.
“Glen has really worked at finding the buttons to push with people. I think he is really intelligent that way and in knowing what to do with certain guys. I have responded to that and have been able to play the way I can play. Also the team is a real good, hard-working group of young guys. They’re only going up from here and big things are coming here in the next couple of years. I am excited to be a part of it.”
Clark echoes Muir’s praise of Hanlon and assistant coaches Jay Leach and Dean Evason.
“Hockey-wise, it has been great,” says Clark of his first season in Washington. “The team is fun, the guys are really nice, it’s great to be in the locker room and it’s a great atmosphere we have here. You could have a team when you are rebuilding and losing where it is miserable coming to the rink all the time. But Glen, the coaches and the leaders here are keeping it upbeat so guys don’t get upset coming to the rink and thinking, ‘We lost a game and we’re going to get bag-skated and it’s going to be a rough practice.’ They know we’re trying all the time and I think it makes a huge difference in the way we play.”
Heward’s chance to return to the NHL came about during the lockout when he and Hanlon both represented Team Canada at the 2004 Spengler Cup tournament, Hanlon as an assistant to head coach Marc Habscheid and Heward as a player. Like Muir, Heward has made the most of his opportunity.
“That makes you feel pretty good inside,” says Heward, “when you get a call from your general manager in January and he the first question is, ‘Are you comfortable? Do you like the Washington area and the organization?’ Right then I kind of knew where it was going. Anytime you are wanted it makes you feel more comfortable in your surroundings.
“From the day I first signed with the Capitals, I have had nothing but positive feedback from everybody. It was a great situation for me and my family to come in here. Obviously there was a little uncertainty coming in from Europe and not knowing [if I would make the team], it was tough but once we made the transition to games the coaching staff and management have been absolutely fantastic. It just rubbed off on what I was trying to accomplish.”
With the impending departure of veteran defenseman Brendan Witt from the Washington blueline corps, Heward becomes the greybeard of the Capitals defense. He is just shy of 300 NHL games played, less than half of Witt’s total. Heward and Muir’s roles and ice time could change next season pending the development of some of the team’s young defense prospects. Heward is ready and willing to serve as a mentor, but believes the Caps’ defensemen are well on their way already.
“Even though they are considered young kids, they are mature beyond their years,” says Heward of Washington’s group of young defensemen. “I guess technically, I am going to be the oldest guy back there. But I don’t feel as though it’s a baby-sitting role whatsoever. These guys are really way ahead of where they should be for their age, development-wise. That has to make the organization feel really good. And it takes a little bit of pressure off the guys they consider to be older, because they know guys like [Shaone] Morrisonn and [Steve] Eminger can play 20 or 25 minutes. [Mike] Green obviously has shown what he can do in the minors and they know he is going to make that jump. I’m feeling very comfortable with the way the organization is going with their guys back there. I’m really looking forward, because the guys on the team make me feel young, too. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
Having gone through a lengthy rebuild from start to finish with the Flames, Clark is in a unique position to assess Washington’s pace as it builds its way back into contention for the Stanley Cup.
“I think we accelerated our pace and what was expected of us from the beginning of the season to now,” declares Clark. “I think it was a two- or three-year project but I think that as well as Alex [Ovechkin] has played and keeping Olie and the core of this group together, I think it is going to be very good and that next year we can be a contender to get into the playoffs.”
With Kolzig, Clark, Heward and Muir in the fold, the front office legwork has begun. A handful of other players – including Ovechkin – are also under contract for next season. Over the next six months the rest of the pieces will be brought together, but the 2006-07 Capitals are already beginning to take shape.