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Caps Look to New Blood for Offensive First Aid

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals finished the 2005-06 season with 230 goals scored, the team’s highest total in four seasons and its second best mark in the last nine campaigns. In the currency of the “new” NHL however, the Caps’ goal total from last season ranked just 23rd in the league. The Caps know they must drastically reduce their goals against, but they must also boost their goals scored total in the season ahead.

Most of the team’s offseason improvements were made with offense in mind. The additions of defenseman Brian Pothier and forwards Richard Zednik and Alexander Semin should lift the team’s attack and help ease the offensive burden that was placed on super rookie Alex Ovechkin in ’05-06. When coach Glen Hanlon unveiled the Caps’ power play units at Monday’s training camp practice, the three newcomers joined Ovechkin and Dainius Zubrus on the club’s first power play unit. Those five players possess enough skill and smarts to greatly improve the team’s power play, the 26th best unit in the league last season.

“I don’t think there are any guarantees when it comes to special teams,” says Hanlon, when asked about the improvement of the power play. “We like to project that we’re going to be better because of Zednik, Semin and Pothier, three pretty good guys to add. Is it fair to say we’re going to be better? We are going to be better. How much better? That’s what we have to find out.”

Zubrus and Pothier manned the points, with Semin, Zednik and Ovechkin freelancing down low. As long as Zubrus is able to take the draws before sliding back to the point, that five-man unit is brimming with talent and potential. The second unit of Kris Beech, Chris Clark, Matt Pettinger, Ben Clymer and Mike Green also has the potential to be formidable.

The addition of the Zednik-Semin-Pothier trio will not only boost Washington’s power play prowess, it should also help make the attack more dangerous in five-on-five situations, too. Although Hanlon refuses to discuss the specifics of his team’s system, he admits that some tweaks are in order and that they will be designed to aid Semin and Zednik.

“We like our wings to be really, really active,” explains Hanlon. “We give them a lot of free rein. We don’t put any real restrictions on them. That sounds like we just let them do what they want, obviously we’ve shown that they can’t. But they can be very creative. That’s why I like Dainius playing with Ovy. For Beechie, of course he is going to have to be [defensively responsible]. We expect all our centers to be the real defensive conscience in every line.”

Originally drafted with Washington’s 10th round choice (249th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, Zednik holds the distinction of being the latest drafted Capital ever to play in the NHL. He spent parts of six seasons with Washington before being traded to Montreal on Mar. 13, 2001 in the deal that brought Dainius Zubrus to the District. When the Caps went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, Zednik tied for the team lead with seven postseason goals.

With Montreal, Zednik hit the 20-goal mark for three consecutive seasons beginning in 2001-02. He notched a career high 31 goals in 2002-03.

“I was playing a different role in Montreal than when I was here,” he says, “but I am the same player. I like to go on offense and score goals.”

Pothier frequently had had to face Zednik, and is happy to have him on his side now.

alt “I’m excited about Zednik,” says Pothier. “I played against him eight times last year and he is dynamic player. He is strong, physical, he is really, really strong on the puck and he makes great plays. He is a goal scorer with speed and he will be a good asset for sure.”

The Capitals team Zednik left some years ago is much different from the one he joins in 2005-06.

“It’s good to be back,” says Zednik. “It has changed since I was here. When I was leaving, I was the youngest guy. Now that I am back after five years, I am one of the oldest. It’s fun to be around a bunch of young guys, but I am enjoying it."

Zednik has one lasting memory of his first stint in Washington, one he wouldn’t mind reliving.

“We went to the Stanley Cup finals; you’re never going to forget that. We won the Eastern Conference championship with a great bunch of guys. It’s something I hope I can do again here.”

Semin played his rookie season with the Capitals in 2003-04, putting up modest totals of 10 goals and 22 points in 52 games. The 22-year-old Russian opted to play in his native country the last two seasons, and he returns to North America as a more physically imposing player.

“He’s stronger,” says Hanlon of Semin. “He was 183 [pounds] when he left here on his year-end exit physical. He is close to 200 now, I think he’s 198 and he’s lean.”

Actually, Semin weighed in at 200 pounds last week and at 6-foot-2 is two inches bigger than he was as a 19-year-old rookie three seasons ago. During Monday’s scrimmage, Semin skated on the right side of a trio that included Ovechkin on the left. Brian Sutherby centered the unit for the first portion of the session with Brooks Laich taking over later on.

Hanlon isn’t sure how the lines will shake out for the regular season, but he doesn’t mind having options and doesn’t see a problem with left wing Semin skating the right side.

“I know they can play together,” says Hanlon of Semin and Ovechkin. “It’s not an issue that Semin can’t play right wing; it’s easy to do. It’s a non-issue. They are two smart guys that can play. With Zubrus as the center he would do a great job and there would be no issues on defensive coverage. The decision isn’t if [Semin] can play right wing, it’s if we want to put all our most offensive guys on one line. I’m not worried that [Semin] can’t play right wing. He’s as smart as they come.”

Semin’s skill level is tantalizing, and he made some terrific feeds during Monday’s scrimmage. He and Zednik both have the potential to net 30 goals, and the Capitals’ attack should be much better for their presence.

Scrimmage Scraps – Black downed White by a 4-1 count in Monday’s scrimmage. White jumped out to a 1-0 lead when Jakub Klepis’ one-time blast beat Black netminder Mazime Daigneault. Alexandre Giroux gained the zone and left a little drop pass for Chad Wiseman, who perfectly fed a wide open Klepis.

Matt Pettinger evened the score for Black with help from linemates Kris Beech and Richard Zednik. Daren Machesney was the victim of Pettinger’s goal. Chris Bourque gave Black the lead when he pounced on a turnover and launched a hard wrist shot into the top right corner, eluding Machesney’s glove swipe.

Frederic Cassivi took over in goal for Black and Michal Neuvirth for White midway through the proceedings. Donald Brashear set up a pretty goal by Louis Robitaille to give Black a 3-1 edge. Robitaille’s shot sent the water bottle jumping. Zednik closed out the scoring on a tally set up by Beech.

“The guys I liked, “ said Hanlon after the scrimmage,  “other than our NHL guys, were Fleischmann, Beech – who did a good job and made two real nice passes for goals there – and Jake [Klepis] looked good, too.”

Hanlon admitted to keeping a close watch on the “bubble” players, and elaborated a bit when asked what he was looking for.

“The first day we did the video systems and the second day we walked through almost everything,” he said. “Now I’m trying to watch the system and see who plays the system and who doesn’t. I think the real intelligent guys, or the guys with real hockey sense, will pick it up right away. So I’m looking at that, and then I’m looking at their ability to make plays and their skating.”

Noteworthy – The first round of roster cuts is expected on Tuesday, with approximately 10 players slated for reassignment. Hanlon and general manager George McPhee will huddle up on Tuesday to decide which players will suit up for Wednesday’s preseason opener against Tampa Bay and Friday’s visit to Pittsburgh.

Hanlon also declared that the experiment of moving winger Ben Clymer to defense would only be permanent if Clymer cracks the team’s top four.

“I’m not going to make the change with Clymer unless he plays top four minutes,” said Hanlon. “I’m not going to switch him from a 14-minute forward to a 12-minute defenseman on a team that was 27th last year. I just don’t think that would be the right thing to do.”

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