With Thursday’s signings of restricted free agents David Steckel and Jamie Hunt, the Caps’ list of unsigned RFAs is now down to three: forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Jakub Klepis and defenseman John Erskine
. Forward Brooks Laich
and defenseman Milan Jurcina are also unsigned, but both will have their 2007-08 salaries determined through the arbitration process if they and the Caps are unable to come to terms sooner. Laich’s hearing is scheduled for July 23 and Jurcina’s for July 30.
Steckel’s deal is for two years. The center has a two-way deal for the first season and a one-way for the second. The 25-year-old native of West Bend, Wis. played four seasons at Ohio State before turning pro in 2004-05. A first-round (30th overall) draft choice of the Los Angeles Kings in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Steckel has appeared in a dozen NHL tilts with Washington over the past two seasons.
A key cog in Hershey’s drive to two consecutive Calder Cup final series and the Bears’ championship campaign in 2005-06, Steckel netted 30 goals and 61 points in 71 games for the Bears in 2006-07. He ran up those impressive offensive totals while being deployed mostly as a shutdown center, a guy whose line was frequently charged with the task of shutting down the opposition’s top forward trio.
Given the type of defensive responsibility he had in Hershey last season, Steckel’s plus-28 was a remarkable figure. He finished third in the league in that category and tied for the league lead with five shorthanded goals.
During the Bears’ run to the Calder Cup championship in the spring of 2006, Steckel played on a tremendously effective shutdown line along with Boyd Gordon and Boyd Kane. With a right-handed centerman in Gordon and a lefty pivot in Steckel, Bears bench boss Bruce Boudreau had the supreme luxury of two quality centers on the same line. Regardless of whether face-offs were in the offensive or defensive zones, Boudreau used Gordon to take draws in the right circle and Steckel in the left. The system was very effective. Both players are excellent on the draw and their prowess in the circle enabled Hershey to win a number of key face-offs and to play more of a puck possession game, a style that favored its big-bodied bunch of forwards.
Washington might also be in a position of having riches up the middle in 2007-08. As the roster is currently constituted, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Caps could have seven natural centers – Steckel, Laich, Gordon, Michael Nylander, Nicklas Backstrom
, Viktor Kozlov and Brian Sutherby – dressed and in the lineup on the same night. In that scenario, three of Washington's four lines would have a pair of pivots. Coaches love the comfort of having two centers on a given line, and it’s far easier for a center to play on the wing than vice versa.
Gordon won 52% of his face-offs for the Caps last season. Steckel played in just five games, but was victorious in 65.1% of the face-offs he took in those contests.
Hunt is a 23-year-old defenseman who hails from Calgary. He played three seasons at Mercyhurst College before signing a free agent deal with Washington on Apr. 1, 2006. Last season was Hunt’s first as a pro. Injuries limited him to just 36 games with the Bears, and he totaled two goals and a dozen points with Hershey. Hunt also played in one game with Washington, getting the call and making his NHL debut at New Jersey on Dec. 29. That game in a Caps uniform gave him the distinction of being the first Mercyhurst player to play in the NHL.
Hunt was one of several impressive defensemen at last week’s summer development camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He scored two goals in the last of four scrimmages held during the week.