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Caps Keep it Local

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
HERSHEY, Pa. -- Last week, Washington captain Jeff Halpern signed a four-year contract with the Dallas Stars, leaving his hometown team via free agency after spending the first six seasons of his career with the team he grew up watching. Halpern was the first local product to make the grade in the NHL, but the Caps have two more local boys in the pipeline and hope that both will one day don a Washington sweater.

Stephen Werner, a native of Chevy Chase, Md., was Washington’s third-round choice (83rd overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Years before he was draft eligible, Werner attended the Caps’ annual summer camps and dazzled onlookers with his speed and skating ability. This week, Werner qualifies as a wizened veteran. Not only has he attended more of these camps than anyone in attendance, he is one of only a handful of players in camp who has had a taste of the pro game.

“I feel more and more comfortable every year at these camps,” he states, “especially this year being one of the older guys here. I am familiar with Hershey after playing here for a couple months. I am excited to be here and I guess I am on a different end of the spectrum now than when I started coming to these camps.”

When he was drafted, Werner had just completed his freshman season at the University of Massachusetts. Now, he has graduated and has signed his first pro contract. Werner, who turns 22 next month, got his first taste of the pro game late in the 2006-06 season when he got into four games with the AHL Hershey Bears, recording three assists. With Hershey’s extreme depth up front, Werner did not crack the postseason lineup. But he did practice with the team as one of its “Black Aces,” and sees that experience as a valuable one going forward.

“I obviously wanted to be playing in the playoffs,” he admits, “but it was a great experience to get to be a part of it and see how a championship team operates at this level. I think there was a lot of value to me coming down and staying in Hershey for the playoffs this year.”

Because college players must pay their own way to camps such as the ones held by the Capitals in Hershey this week, many NCAA players have bypassed the experience in years past. But this summer’s camp features a thick crop of college kids. As one who has completed his four years of school and received his degree, Werner is in a unique position. He understands the lure of leaving school to turn pro early as defenseman Sasha Pokulok did last week, but acknowledges that his own case was different.

“A lot of these guys are playing college hockey and that is great to see,” says Werner. “My first couple of camps it was almost all Canadian junior players and Europeans. For me, four years was what I needed to develop in terms of hockey and I definitely wanted to get my degree. For these kids, they just have to see what is best for them and their development. If leaving college early is the right thing to do, then I think they should do it.”

Many of the young players in the Caps’ camp this week are in need of adding some speed to their game in hopes of boosting their chances of one day reaching the NHL. Werner is not one of them. He has speed to burn, but the right wing is working on other areas of his game this week and this summer.

“I am trying to learn as much as I can from [Capitals team physiologist] Jack Blatherwick and the other coaches here,” says Werner. “He has definitely got some good advice that is not very typical of most of the coaches that you talk to. It is great to get another perspective. Today we worked on shooting and skills and that is something that I really have to focus on this summer.”

Werner doesn’t necessarily see himself as the heir apparent to Halpern’s now vacant “local boy makes good” story. He just wants to get his pro career moving and get to the NHL.

“I was obviously disappointed to see that Jeff went to Dallas,” says Werner. “He has been a huge part of the organization for a while and a huge role model for Maryland hockey players and local hockey player. My goal right now is to get to the NHL and get into a Caps jersey.”

Last month at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver, the Capitals selected another product of the local youth hockey system. Center Luke Lynes was born in Michigan, but his family moved to Maryland when he was 11. Lynes played youth hockey in the area, playing in Howard County and for the Little Caps. His father Shawn, a former player at Miami (Ohio) University, still coaches the Little Caps. The Lynes family has been Capitals season ticket holders for years, and Lynes listed Alex Ovechkin as his favorite player in the NHL’s draft media guide.

Lynes was not present in Vancouver when he was selected, but it was a special day for him and his family nonetheless.

“I had a bunch of friends over,” Lynes recalls. “We were sitting there watching on the computer. I just wanted to do a bunch of things to take my mind off it. We were playing basketball in the pool, just having a relaxing day. My uncle flew in from Ohio, so we had a lot of family in. My dad was hitting the refresh button every 10 seconds so he knew before me, I was kind of watching the computer, but I was a little more relaxed. Every minute or so I would click it. I was sitting there and all of a sudden I heard a big rumble from upstairs; they started screaming. I hit it again and saw I got picked by the Caps and all of a sudden I had a big smile on my face.”

Lynes wasn’t smiling after his interview with the Capitals at the NHL’s May draft combine in Toronto. The personable 18-year-old thought he’d blown his chance of being drafted by his favorite team.

“I knew they had interest,” says Lynes when asked if he thought the Caps might draft him. “But it’s funny how it worked out. I was at the combine and you have interviews with each of the teams. My agent called me and asked me how my interview with Washington went.  I said, ‘It went terrible. There is now way they are going to take me, I thought it was absolutely brutal.’ But at the end of the day, they took me. So I guess it wasn’t all that bad.”

Lynes’ game is different from Werner’s, and so is the path he is taking to the pros. Lynes’ father had hopes of Luke following in his footsteps and going to Miami, but the youngster opted to play junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League. After totaling a modest 11 goals and 24 points as a 17-year-old in his first season with the OHL’s Brampton Battalion, Lynes had a breakout year in 2005-06. He registered 34 goals and 62 points in 65 games.

While speed and skating are Werner’s calling cards, they are the areas that Lynes needs to work on.

“My skating is the number one thing,” he admits. “and my quickness and just that first step. Once I get going I am like a big train. Once I get going I am all right. Just those first couple steps it takes me to get going, I think if I can improve upon that it will make all the difference in the world.”

Lynes is looking to have an even bigger year for the Battalion in 2006-07. Some of Brampton’s key players will graduate to the pros, a development that should leave Lynes with more ice time in key situations and more power play time, too.

“[Wojtek] Wolski and [Luciano] Aquino were our two big guns and they were gone for the first 15 games or so,” says Lynes. “I got a little taste of what it is going to be like this year, and I am ready for the challenge and I am looking forward to it.”

Like Werner, Lynes is looking forward to working with Blatherwick and making himself a better hockey player.

“We have a few mutual friends,” Lynes says of Blatherwick, “and I was actually going to try to get home and work out with him but I think he went back to Minnesota before I got home from Toronto.  But I have met him a couple times and his philosophies are very interesting.”

Werner is happy to see another local kid following in his footsteps, just as he followed in Halpern’s.

“That is great to see,” says Werner, of the Caps’ selection of Lynes. “Hopefully there are more kids from the area who will get drafted by the Caps and other teams in the near future. I think it shows that hockey in the D.C. area is going in the right direction.”

Zed’s Back
Washington vice president and general manager George McPhee was not present at Wednesday morning’s on-ice sessions, which were held at venerable Hersheypark Arena because of another event at Giant Center. Turns out McPhee was busy working the phones, and by mid-afternoon his labors had produced some fruit. The Caps announced late Wednesday that they had acquired right wing Richard Zednik from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a third-round choice in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

Zednik, 30, was originally selected by Washington in the 10th round (249th overall) of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. The Slovakian winger holds the distinction of being the latest drafted Capital ever to reach the NHL.

“We know Zed well,” says McPhee, “which is always nice because you know what you are getting in a player and in a personality.”

Zednik first reached the NHL at the tail end of the 1995-96 season. He made the grade for good in 1997-98, and scored 17 goals. He added seven more tallies in the playoffs as the Capitals advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, tying for the team lead in that department. Zednik’s single-season high in goals with Washington was 19 in 1999-00. He was traded to Montreal along with Jan Bulis for Dainius Zubrus and Trevor Linden on March 13, 2001.

“Zed is a competitive player who has no fear in his game,” assesses McPhee. “Pound for pound, he is one of the strongest players you will find in this league on his skates.”

Speed is a big part of Zednik’s game. He netted 22 goals in his first full season with the Habs and tallied a career high 31 in 2002-03. Over the course of his career, Zednik has averaged 23 goals for every 80 games played. He missed 15 games because of injuries in 2005-06, but missed a total of only three games in the three previous seasons combined.

“Zed will be in the top six [forwards] and who he plays with will be determined by the coaching staff,” says McPhee.

McPhee added that the addition of Zednik will not take a spot away from a young player who might be trying to crack the Caps’ lineup this fall.

“We still have lots of room in our lineup,” says McPhee. “If a young player comes up and he is better than what is in our lineup, he will play. It is a good situation to have.”
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