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Caps Kids Punch In on Labor Day

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals

Caps coach Bruce Boudreau took to the ice on Labor Day morning and put his young charges through a hard-working practice that included a lengthy conditioning skate at the end. The opening session of the caps' 2009 rookie camp lasted about two hours, minus time for the ice to be resurfaced, and "labor" was the operative word. Most players appeared to be in decent shape, although several were huffing and puffing by the time Boudreau had finished with them.

“Every coach has some sort of barometer to see who worked hard in the summer and who took it easier than they should have,” says Boudreau. “I thought most of our guys were really good today. A couple of the guys who were late additions probably didn’t skate as much.”

The rookie camp roster includes 23 players, of which 19 are members of the Capitals’ organization. Forward Ryan Jasinsky and defensemen Aaron Dawson, Ryan Kerr and Kevin Schmidt are the four free-agent invitees.

The group will skate and practice on the Kettler sheet Tuesday and Wednesday before participating in an informal Thursday scrimmage. The four days’ work will be in preparation for a Friday road trip to Voorhees, N.J. where the Caps’ kids will go up against the Philadelphia Flyers rookie team in a scrimmage at the Flyers’ practice facility.

Center Anton Gustafsson and defenseman John Carlson are the most recent first-round picks on the ice for Washington this week. Both were first-round selections in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft with Gustafsson – the son of ex-Caps center Bengt Gustafsson – going 21st overall and Carlson going 27th.

While Carlson turned in a strong performance at last fall’s rookie and regular training camps, Gustafsson was recovering from a back injury. Carlson enjoyed a terrific 2008-09 season, culminating with a Calder Cup championship with the AHL Hershey Bears in his first taste of pro hockey. Gustafsson endured an injury-plagued campaign and then suffered a concussion after a hard, high-speed collision with a goalpost during the team’s summer development camp here in July.

Determined to make the best showing possible in his first pro camp, Gustafsson arrived in Arlington some three weeks ago. He has been skating in earnest with the team’s veterans since as he prepares a bid to move up the organization’s deep and crowded depth chart. Monday’s grueling session convinced him that his three-week head start was a good idea.

“Very much,” Gustafsson says, when asked whether his early start benefited him. “Last time in development camp I did not feel half as good as I feel now. It feels very good. Those three weeks made a huge difference.”

The Capitals head into 2009-10 with Stanley Cup aspirations. The team’s AHL Hershey affiliate has been to the Calder Cup finals three times in the last four seasons and is poised for a similar run this season, at least on paper. The Caps are well-stocked up front and Gustafsson will need a strong showing to open some eyes and carve out a meaningful role for himself this season.

“I am going to stay [in North America] all year,” he says. “It’s a pretty big thing for me. The last three weeks I have been looking forward to this all the time, just getting in here and getting started working.”

Carlson has already opened eyes. He comes to town with a chance at earning an opening night roster berth, a rarity for a teenaged defenseman on a Cup-contending club.

“I wanted to take a lot of time off after the season,” says Carlson. “I played I think 110 games [in 2008-09] or something crazy like that, so I did that and I thought in summer [development] camp, maybe I wasn’t as ready as I should have been. I got onto the ice a lot after that and after that really started my summer training on the ice. I felt good out there today and just look forward to the game on Friday.”

Boudreau coached the 2005-06 Bears to a Calder Cup title and led Hershey to the finals again the following season. He knows that championship AHL teams often produce NHL talent, and he looks forward to molding some of last season’s Bears into tomorrow’s Capitals.

“If you look at the history of teams that win the Calder Cup, they always have four or five guys playing in the NHL in the next year or next year and a half at least,” says Boudreau. “They’re going to push some of these guys that think they’ve been safe for years to make sure they play some of their best hockey.

“I think we’ve got three good goalies. I think we have NHL defensemen. We have a multitude of forwards that are ready to make the next step. I think there are battles all over the ice. It should make for good stories everywhere.”

After the Caps rookies took to the ice, more than a dozen of the team’s veterans took to the ice for an informal practice. That group has been skating together for a couple weeks now, and its numbers have been increasing by the day.

Boudreau stayed around long enough for a short peek at that session, too.

“I don’t know if I pay that much attention to what they accomplish,” he admits, “but you certainly look at all the players and see what their summer conditioning was like. And they all look like they are in tremendous shape, so it makes the coach smile.”

In a perfect world, today is the first day of a season that will end sometime around mid-June. So the players had better be in tremendous shape.

“It’s crazy to think about that, especially coming off the season we had last year,” says Carlson. “At the end of the day when you look at it all, I had such a short summer. I didn’t really get to do much. But that’s a good thing in this business. It was a great experience and I think it will really help me coming into this year’s training camp and I am really looking forward to it.”

Notes: Forward Stefan Della Rovere “got his bell rung” last week according to Boudreau, and he was held off the ice for the first day’s work as a result … Defenseman-turned-forward Joe Finley was impressive but he left the ice early with some soreness … Boudreau’s sons Andy and Ben participated in the first day’s on-ice activities, wearing white sweaters sans nameplates ... Braden Holtby and Semyon Varlamov were the goaltenders for today's rookie session. Michal Neuvirth and Brett Leonhardt were the afternoon netminders in the veterans' informal session. Varlamov and Neuvirth will trade places for Tuesday's on-ice sessions.

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