For 25 youthful Washington Capitals hopefuls, summer came to an end this morning. Caps head coach Glen Hanlon and his staff put the team’s young prospects through their paces today at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on the opening day of the team’s first rookie camp in recent memory.
Thirty players were listed on Washington’s original camp list earlier this week, but there were 25 on the ice sheet this morning. Three of the players (defensemen Karl Alzner
and Josh Godfrey and goaltender Simeon Varlamov) on the original roster are not present at Kettler because they are participating in the Super Series tournament between Canada and Russia. Varlamov will not be reporting to Kettler; instead he will join his Yaroslavl teammates for the Russian Super League season at the conclusion of the Super Series.
Two more players – both defensemen – will not be in attendance for different reasons. Blueliner Keith Seabrook suffered a shoulder injury at Calgary Hitmen camp and will not report to rookie camp. Russian rearguard Viktor Dovgan made a last minute decision to stay in his native country with his young family. The 20-year-old Dovgan signed a pact to play for CSKA Moscow in 2007-08.
The unexpected absence of so many defensemen leaves the Caps in a bit of a bind for now.
“One of the problems that we have here is that we had two late scratches on D,” says Hanlon. “So we’ve got 17 forwards and six defensemen. If we break these guys up into two groups we can’t scrimmage because we’ve only got three defense[men] on each team. Which doesn’t disappoint me; we can do a lot of other things. We didn’t really have it scheduled to scrimmage until the end. Later on in the camp both Godfrey and Alzner will show up. So we’ll have eight defense[men] and the last day of camp before [we play] Philadelphia we can have a full scrimmage with these guys.”
Saturday marked the first day of what will be a five-day camp. The group will skate, practice and scrimmage from 10:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. each day through Tuesday. Camp concludes on Wednesday when the group buses to Voorhees, N.J. to take on the Philadelphia Flyers’ rookies in a scrimmage.
There was a good deal of pace and tempo to Saturday’s session, and for good reason. Not all of the players in attendance at rookie camp will be staying in town when Washington’s official training camp gets underway on Friday. There is a very finite number of invitations available, and many (if not most) of the players on the ice here Saturday will be headed back to junior camp or to a minor league camp by this time next week.
One player who seems determined not to be on that early cut list is defenseman Sasha Pokulok. The Montreal native endured a nightmare of a rookie pro season in 2006-07. After coming to camp in less than ideal physical condition, he suffered a concussion in his first pro game with Hershey. The injury caused him to spend a few months on the sidelines. Upon returning, Pokulok played for the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, and even played some on the wing. A second concussion in March ended his season after a total of just 17 games.
After Saturday’s two-hour practice, Pokulok might have been the happiest guy in the building.
“It felt great,” says the 6-foot-5 defenseman, of being on the ice in contact drills. “I hadn’t been able to do this in a long time. Just to be back out there with the guys and skating and getting that cold wind in your face made me smile every time I was on the ice.”
“He’s had a tough start with two concussions in his first year,” says Hanlon. “He only played 15 or 16 games. We’re more or less [of the opinion that] the first year for him was just a ‘wipe it clean.’ Let’s get his feet under him here and get him ready for the season.”
On Saturday, Pokulok displayed some jump to his game that was lacking at this time last year. Not only is he in better physical condition, his mental state has also improved.
“I missed so much time that I had enough time to think that I needed to dedicate myself to hockey once again, just do all the little things right,” he admits. “Get to bed early and train hard. I had a lot of fun this summer and it was all about working out and playing hockey.”
“I’ve elevated my exercise level. At the start of the summer I couldn’t do too much because I was still getting some headaches. I just kept elevating my energy level and it’s back to normal right now.
“I am more than ready to go right now.”
Washington’s first-round choice (14th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, the 21-year-old Pokulok could crack the top six in Hershey with a strong showing in camp.
Center Nicklas Backstrom
has been in town for nearly a week now, and he has a few practice sessions with the NHL Capitals under his belt. But he is taking nothing for granted.
As you’d expect, Backstrom was one of the sharper players on the ice on Saturday. But in his own mind, he’s fighting for a spot and the right to compete at Kettler beyond the middle of the week ahead.
“I’m real excited to be here and hopefully to be at the training camp too and take my place on the team,” the 19-year-old pivot says. “We’ll see what happens. I don’t have a position yet. We’ll see.”
“We’ll see” is right. As in we’ll see Backstrom here at Kettler on Friday.
One of the more interesting organizational stories to follow this fall is that of young Czech netminder Michal Neuvirth
, the team's second-round (34th overall) choice in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
“We’re totally impressed with him,” says Hanlon. “He seems to have a very calm demeanor about him and he knows his way around the goal crease. He was drafted at that point of the draft for a reason. We look like we have a real good prospect here.”
After leading the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers to the Memorial Cup finals in his first season in that league, Neuvirth may not have much –if anything – left to prove at the junior level. In his own mind, he’s ready to turn pro and has his sights set on a gig in Hershey as backup to Bears veteran Frederic Cassivi.
“He is going to determine where he ends up playing,” says Hanlon – a former NHL goaltender himself – of Neuvirth. “We come with a few preconceived notions and evaluations that we have before camp on some players obviously. The higher end player, the more you’ve accomplished the easier it is to sort of slot where you are. There are always a handful at training camp where it’s wait and see what you do.
“We don’t ever want to take away the fact that if you come here, work hard and show that you can play at a certain level and the rules allow you – because of his situation – allow him to be in the American Hockey League. And if the player and management feel that it’s the best thing for him, then we’ll put him where he deserves to be playing.”Notes:
After the conclusion of the on-ice portion of Saturday’s slate, the prospects went through a series of off-ice tests and conditioning evaluations … Forwards Chris Bourque
, Eric Fehr and David Steckel and defenseman Mike Green
took to the ice and skated on their own after the rookies were finished on Saturday afternoon.