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Caps Open Camp Looking for a Leap

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
Summers in Washington have been too long lately; just ask any of the Washington Capitals. The Caps’ last postseason appearance was in 2003; the team and its fans have endured two non-playoff campaigns and a season-long labor stoppage since. Although the Capitals can still be considered to be in a rebuilding phase, the NHL's new economic landscape combined with the team’s plucky performance in 2005-06 lends hope that the upcoming 2006-07 season might bring the up and coming Caps back to the postseason.

alt After a rocky start to the 2005-06 campaign, Washington showed continuous improvement the rest of the way. The Caps suffered 11 “blowout" (by more than three goals) losses over the course of 2005-06, but five of those came in the season’s first dozen games. After a 31-point first half, the Caps amassed 39 points in the second half. If Washington can muster another eight-point improvement in the first half of 2006-07, that would result in 47 points. If they can then maintain that pace the rest of the way, it would culminate in a 94-point season. That was enough for a playoff berth in last season’s Eastern Conference standings.

Can they do it? Is it too much to expect, too soon? We’re about to find out. The Caps' 82-episode reality series begins on Oct. 5.

Forty-nine players (28 forwards, 15 defensemen and six goaltenders) convene on Friday morning at the team’s temporary practice facility in Ashburn, Va. for 20 days worth of training camp which, along with seven preseason games, will serve as preparation for the team’s 32nd season. The Caps’ first preseason tilt is Wednesday against Tampa Bay at Verizon Center.

If the Caps are to make the playoffs this season, an improvement of about 25 points in the standings will be required. If you read the preseason preview publications, they’ll tell you the Caps won’t improve anywhere near that much because they didn’t make enough significant (read: costly) offseason additions. As for the Capitals themselves, they’re not buying that.

“Did we go out and sign a $5 million a year guy?” asks left wing Matt Pettinger. “No. But I don’t think you need that to win these days. Carolina was supposed to be right with us last year and look at them, they ended up winning the Stanley Cup. There is so much parity in the league right now with this new salary cap, any team can get on a roll and do anything. One of the strongest points we have is goaltending, and obviously we’ve got some firepower up front. And we’ve got a good, mobile back end. I think we can do some damage and I hope everybody has the same mindset.”

The firepower of which Pettinger speaks starts with Alex Ovechkin. The 2006 Calder Trophy winner turns 21 on Sunday. He scored 52 goals and totaled 106 points as a freshman, and figures to have a better supporting cast this season.

The return of Alexander Semin from a season in the Russian Super League and the return of Richard Zednik after five seasons with Montreal gives the Capitals more scoring depth. Pettinger, who scored 20 goals as the team’s second line left wing last season, becomes the third line left wing, giving that unit a viable scoring threat. The scoring trickle-down should help boost Washington’s total of 237 goals last season, the third fewest in the Eastern Conference.

Coach Glen Hanlon envisions a better offensive team, even with the offseason loss of Jeff Halpern and Brian Willsie to free agency.

“Halpie and Willie moved to other teams,” notes Hanlon. “They scored 30 goals for us [last season]. We hope that can be made up with offensive improvements from [Brian] Sutherby, [Matt] Bradley, [Brooks] Laich and those types of players. We think they can make up those 30 goals. We hope the goals we get from Semin and Zednik will be ‘bonus’ goals.

alt “Even though we had 70 points [last year] and there could have been arguments that we should have made a bunch of changes, we’re not interested in making a bunch of changes. We liked our team. We feel our improvement will come from our young players just getting better, and from improvements in systems.”

The team’s current plan is to keep last year’s top unit of Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus and Chris Clark together. What remains to be seen, and what will be one of the keys of camp, is who will center for Semin and Zednik. The competition appears to be between Laich and Kris Beech, but Sutherby wouldn’t mind inserting his name into the mix. If a viable option has not emerged by the Oct. 5 season opener against the Rangers in New York, a trade to bring a second line pivot into the fold is possible.

Adding goals is important to Washington’s hopes for 2006-07, but cutting goals against is more imperative. The Capitals surrendered the second most goals in the NHL last season, giving up markers at a rate of nearly four a game. But during the last 23 games of 2005-06, Washington gave up only 70 goals, a rate of just over three goals a game. Not coincidentally, the Caps were 9-8-6 during that stretch, their best run of the season.

Last season, veteran journeymen Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir were both pleasant surprises on the blueline. Both will return, and both must prove that last season was no fluke. Youngsters Shaone Morrisonn and Steve Eminger are still gaining experience and improving. Brian Pothier is the team’s most significant offseason addition; he’ll be expected to play about 20 minutes a night and help the power play. Ben Clymer, a defenseman by trade, was converted to forward a few years back and had a fine season on the team’s checking line in 2005-06. The Caps are going to experiment with him on defense this season, mainly because his mobility and his hard right-handed shot are desirable assets for the position. Rookie Mike Green had a very good season with AHL Hershey in his first season as a pro, and the team announced the signing of big and rugged John Erskine on Thursday.

With just 310 games worth of NHL experience, the 35-year-old Heward is the greybeard of the team’s blueline corps. He is ready to take on more of a leadership role.

“I look forward to it,” he says. “It’s a role that I’ve never had before. Coming into last year, we were supposed to have an inexperienced defense as well, but we had guys who made great strides. Morrisonn and Eminger both made great strides as young kids. I don’t know if you can consider them to be young anymore. They played a full season and played very well. Morrisonn went from playing 12 to 15 minutes to almost leading our team in ice time towards the end of the year.

“Yeah, we’re relatively inexperienced when it comes to games played. But I think the kids who were supposed to be our rookies became more like veteran guys towards the end of the year. I think it’s going to be a good mix this year. Picking up Pothier gives us another guy who can play more minutes. Everybody is probably going to be between 18-25 minutes a night, and I think that’s a good thing. You’re not going to have guys getting tired or burned out. And if you are called on to play more than 25, then you have to do the job, get it done and move on to the next game. I think we’ve done a good job in the last year and a half of picking up guys who can play some minutes.”

Hanlon believes that although the group may not have a great deal of experience, it has enough experience to be comfortable while still having room for growth and improvement.

“I think just the natural improvements of the players getting more older, more experienced and more comfortable will make a difference,” he says. “I relate it to the experience of players playing college and junior. By the time the third year comes in your junior career, you just feel like you’re in total control out there. That’s kind of what happens in the pros when you get three years under your belt, and that’s kind of where we are with players like Morrisonn and Eminger. We feel we’re going to be better defensively because these types of players are going to make solid improvements. We have some areas where we project people to do things, and that’s going to be the question mark, is if they can meet our expectations. Mike Green is a player who played very well in juniors, was drafted high and played very well last year in Hershey. We’re expecting him to come into camp and compete for one of the spots. If he can do that, then that will certainly be a bonus.”

The Caps expect to be strong in goal, where veteran Olie Kolzig returns for his ninth season as the No. 1 man. In Brent Johnson, the Caps have as good a backup to Kolzig as they’ve had in the last decade.

Special teams will also be a focus and a key for the 2006-07 Capitals. Washington finished 26th on the NHL’s power play ledger and 28th in the NHL in penalty killing a year ago.

alt “The biggest thing, “ says Sutherby, “and I don’t think it’s a secret, is special teams. That was our downfall last year. Our power play wasn’t great at times and our penalty kill certainly needed to improve. There were other nights where our power play really got going. We’ve added some firepower and I think that is going to help the power play. We’ve really got to make a conscious effort to work on the PK and bring that percentage up a bit. Five-on-five we could play with any team in the league last year. But special teams let us down and it is something we’ve really got to concentrate on.”

Improvement is needed and expected in all areas. If the team flatlines after 2005-06, there will be no playoff push and Washington will yet another long summer in 2007. But if Semin and Zednik can help diversify the attack, and if the young defensemen can continue the steady improvement they showed last season, a leap to playoff contention is feasible.

The Caps have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the lean early years of the franchise’s existence, when they went eight straight seasons before landing their first-ever postseason berth in 1982-83.

A 94-point season in 2006-07 would represent a 24-point improvement over last season. It may seem like a large leap, but it is far from unprecedented. A 24-point jump would rank as the fourth-best point increase from one season to the next in franchise history. The club record is the 34-point vault from 68 in 1998-99 to 102 in 1999-00.

“It’s hard to say where the biggest battles will be,” says Caps GM George McPhee on the eve of camp. “I think the emphasis at camp will be that there are opportunities. This is probably one of the best places to be for opportunities if you’re a good guy who likes to work his tail off. We’re going to make room for those kinds of people, irrespective of what position they play. Obviously the goaltending is set, but nothing else is.”
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