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Owner's Corner 4-28-06

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
As I write this, I have just returned from a playoff game – not a Stanley Cup playoff game, mind you, although I’m confident we’ll see those back in Washington before too long. I was in Hershey, a couple of hours north of D.C., watching the Bears finish off a sweep in their first-round playoff series.

The Hershey Bears celebrate after sweeping round 1
It’s a great environment in Hershey, from the spirit of the crowd to the camaraderie of the team. It’s precisely the way we wanted our young players to develop when we formed our partnership with Hershey a year ago. That partnership is a big part of our overall plan, and something I hope our fans have a chance to see in person, if not during the AHL playoffs then at some point next year.

Think of it – we could have both a Calder Cup, given to the AHL playoff champion, and a Calder Trophy, given to the NHL rookie of the year, in one organization. If that’s not enough to get excited about the future, I’m not sure what is.

But that’s just the start of our reasons for optimism. I’m still adjusting to flipping on the television at night, or opening the paper each morning, and seeing that other teams are still playing hockey while our season is over. It’s a little bit frustrating – but, I believe, a positive sign that none of us who followed the 2005-06 Washington Capitals can wait to get back on the ice.

The season ended on an upswing – wins in four of our last five games and a stirring performance in front of an inspired crowd on Fan Appreciation Night – giving us momentum heading into the spring and summer. It’s a great feeling, to have a plan in place and have the confidence that it’s working. While we’d rather still be playing, I’m inspired by the positive energy that surrounds our club, from the locker room to the emails I receive from our fans.

Head Coach Glen Hanlon
Our plan is working. We have a young, energetic core of players that will continue to grow. A culture has been established in our locker room that revisits the traditional definition of “Caps Hockey”: hard working, honest, skilled, hard to play against and easy to root for.

We’ve built a team that plays hard and within a system. I give a world of credit to Glen Hanlon, whose name deserves to be mentioned among coach of the year candidates, as well as his staff, Jay Leach, Dean Evason, Dave Prior, Jack Blatherwick and Todd Woodcroft. The players believe in what they have been taught, and they respect the coaching staff – all of that is part of building a winning franchise.

That said, none of us are ignoring the standings. We were 27th out of 30 teams in points this season, and no amount of optimism can change that. There’s work to be done here, but I feel strongly that the building blocks are in place.

Some of those building blocks are intangibles – things like character and culture. We’ve been careful about how we assembled this team, because we knew, given its youth, that its identity would transcend this season. I expect this team to come back next fall and once again be one of the league’s toughest teams to play against; to be a group that gets along on and off the ice; to be willing to stick up for each other; and to outwork its opponent on a regular basis.

Alex Ovechkin and Olie Kolzig joke around in warm-ups
Other building blocks are more easily identifiable: specifically, they wear Nos. 37 and 8. In Olie Kolzig and Alex Ovechkin, we have two of the best players and highest character people in the NHL.

Olie has been with the Capitals organization longer than any player in team history; he’s a huge part of Capitals history, and I’m thrilled that he will be a part of our future. He kept us in countless games this season, and his leadership helped a young team establish its identity. He won’t get the credit some playoff goalies receive when it comes to postseason awards and the like this year, but we know what we have here with our big man. And I think you do too. Sadly, as most of you may know, Olie’s father passed away suddenly last week; our thoughts are with him and his family in the obviously difficult time. The Kolzig family requests donations be made to the Carson Kolzig Foundation.

The Carson Kolzig Foundation
c/o Dennis Loman
8131 West Grandridge Boulevard
Kennewick, WA  99336

All of hockey, meanwhile, has come to see what we have with Alex. We’ve run out of adjectives to describe his rookie season, but we should get another opportunity to celebrate it in June when, as most members of the media have predicted, he will earn the Calder Trophy. He is “coachable,” fits in well with our system and is a part of the best locker room camaraderie we have seen here in years. The NHL Awards Show will be held Thursday, June 22, in Vancouver – two days before the NHL Entry Draft.

It was great to see Alex honored before and after our final home game – the outpouring of support from the fans was impressive, and his thanks were sincere. The energy in Verizon Center that evening was amazing; it probably was the most fun I had at a game all year. Talking with Alex after the game, he loved the atmosphere – as we all did – and was a bit overwhelmed by the attention. He certainly deserves every last bit of it.

Alex’s season has been rehashed in every conceivable way, but here’s one thing that stands out to me: He not only had one of the best rookie seasons the NHL has ever seen, but also one of the best seasons, period. His 106 points were the second-best total in 31 seasons of Capitals hockey (136 points, Dennis Maruk, 1981-82); his 52 goals were tied for third. And his impact on this franchise’s history has just begun.

What’s just as impressive is the way he carries himself, from his humble acceptance of the attention he gets to the drive he displays on the ice. He’s a player’s player – even opponents love him, and that’s because he’s not only an amazing talent, but he does things the right way. I’ve said that he’s right out of central casting in terms of a No. 1 overall pick, and even that may be understating it – I’m not sure you could even ask for someone this perfectly suited for the role he’s playing.

Focusing on Olie and Alex, however, makes it easy to overlook the accomplishments of the rest of our roster. I was always disappointed to hear commentators this season talk about Alex’s accomplishments in light of a lack of talent around him. Had they not noticed the tremendous all-around season Dainius Zubrus had? Or what about the fact that, when given the opportunity, Chris Clark was a 20-goal scorer?

Jamie Heward, Chris Clark, Matt Pettinger and Shaone Morrisonn celebrate
Opportunity is a key theme in evaluating our personnel this season. We were able to put a number of players in situations they had never been in before. Matt Pettinger and Brian Willsie, players who had limited minutes in the past, showed that they could be scorers at this level. Brian Sutherby displayed not only a bit of a scoring touch, but also an ability to play against the opposition’s top line. Sutherby and Pettinger were two players we drafted and were patient with in their development.

Jeff Halpern fit well in the captain’s role and had a career-best 33 assists. He didn’t have his scoring touch all year, but when we were playing our best hockey he had six goals in the last 11 games. Most importantly, Jeff continued to prove that he could be counted on in every situation on the ice and was a good leader on a young team.

We really had four lines that could contribute every night. Sutherby’s line, with Ben Clymer and Matt Bradley, was a great example. I loved watching these guys work every night. Even when their efforts didn’t result in a goal, they were giving their all and usually giving the opponent fits. Matt even played games with a broken foot. Brooks Laich is another guy who fit right in and quietly put up more than 20 points.

Defensively, we discovered a pair of veteran players in Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir. And two former first-round picks – Steve Eminger and Shaone Morrisonn – showed that they could shoulder 20-plus minutes every night. The sight of Steve and Shaone hopping over the boards is one I’m sure our fans will take comfort in as they continue to develop into our defensive leaders. Remember, Steve is just 22 years old, while Shaone is 23.

What’s more, we got to see a lot of young players who will play big roles in Washington in the future. Eighteen players laced them up for both the Capitals and Hershey Bears in 2005-06, and a number of those players are helping the Bears make a push for the Calder Cup right now.

Eric Fehr shows tenacity going after a loose puck
When we saw Mike Green in training camp, we thought we had found one of the best young defensemen we had seen in a long, long time. That was reinforced by his selection to the AHL All-Rookie Team – the first Caps prospect ever to earn that honor. I was blown away by his presence, skating and confidence with the puck in the playoff game I went to see.

Eric Fehr scored goals in bunches for the Bears, and had a pretty one that sealed Game 4 of their playoff series. Kris Beech and Tomas Fleischmann were big scorers as well. Boyd Gordon has been a tremendous penalty killer and defensive gem, too.

There are some intriguing young guys who we haven’t had a real look at in Hershey yet. Jeff Schultz, a first-round pick in the same draft that brought us Ovechkin and Green, could make his pro debut in the second round of the AHL playoffs. Then there’s local product Stephen Werner and a couple of college players who we recently signed: Jamie Hunt and Matt Stefanishion.

Even further in the future, we’ve got five picks in the first two rounds in this summer’s draft. Two of those are in the first round, including the No. 4 overall pick. Some of those could be impact players, and they give us flexibility as well – we’ve stockpiled assets that will help us down the road as either prospects or in potential trade discussions.

For all our optimism, however, we are not blind to our shortcomings. This year’s team struggled on special teams, and those are weaknesses upon which we have to improve. We played 42 one-goal games this season and lost two-thirds of them. Conversely, had we lost only one-third of those games, we would have been challenging for a playoff spot. Improved special teams would go a long way to turning some of those losses into wins.

How we go about improving the team has been a matter of much conjecture on the message boards, in my email inbox, in the media and elsewhere. I’ll reiterate: We like the progress we saw during the course of this season, and I wouldn’t expect us to deviate from the plan we have set in motion. The plan is in place and it is working, and we have to maintain our patience and stay the course, while being open-minded to opportunities as they present themselves.

That said, we know next fall’s team will look different from the one that won its last three games. That’s a fact of life in today’s NHL – and, really, something that needs to happen for us to improve.

Alexander Semin
We know that Alexander Semin will be with us next season, and we’re excited to welcome him back to the team. We saw glimmers of his talents at the end of the 2003-04 season; he will give us an offensive weapon and, I believe, help on our power play.

We expect some of our talented young players to step up and grab a permanent spot on our roster next year, much like Brooks Laich did this season. That’s part of this rebuilding strategy we’re pursuing – growth from within thanks to a well stocked AHL team in Hershey. There are seven first-round NHL draft picks playing in the AHL playoffs for Hershey.

That’s not meant to rule out adding some talent from outside the organization, but if we do so, they will be measured, strategic signings. The assets we have in our farm system and in terms of draft choices can all help us make an acquisition down the road. I can’t, at this point, speculate about unrestricted free agents we might try to sign – that’s all to be determined, by the market, by the players, and even by our business model and budget, which hasn’t been established yet.

In today’s NHL economic system and new rules, we knew that there would be a premium on speed, teamwork and passion. The 2005-06 Capitals finished ahead of the 2003-04 team in standings points, and more importantly, we have a tremendous upside. I think when the regular season concluded, we were the fourth youngest team in the league. We finished the season ranked in the top 12 teams in points per payroll – a great improvement over being last in the league, as we were in 2004.

What builds a winner is a series of smart draft picks, astute trades and calculated signings that work together to create a team. We’re well on our way to developing that here, and that’s the formula we will continue to follow.

Fans express their feelings for the Caps
I have been extremely gratified by the number of emails I have received from fans who are in full support of our plan. Some admittedly expressed skepticism at the start of the season, but by year’s end they were behind us 100%. As the season progressed there was a definite change in tonality in the emails I received, the threads on the message boards and the personal interactions I had with fans. So I thank you for continuing to believe in us and thank you to our players who demonstrated a grit and determination that got us heading in the right direction.

Now we have to regain some of the fan base that did not renew tickets coming out of the lockout. We averaged nearly 14,000 per game this year, down around 3% when compared with 2003-04. On a positive note, our group sales were up 30% and individual-game sales increased 40%. Our challenge is to convert those fans into plan holders. If we increased our full-season ticket base by 750 accounts that purchase four tickets each, we would be close to our 2001-02 record attendance of 17,341 per game. We know it’s not easy, but we are aiming for a high renewal rate, working hard to regain the confidence of past plan holders and expect to generate a significant amount of new sales.

To build that audience, we need to continue to find new and creative ways to connect with fans. We are one of the few professional sports teams that recognizes the power of the blogosphere – I link to some of my favorites in my blog. Our staff did more than ever with podcasts on this season. And we worked to reach new fans through advertising in movie theaters, other non-traditional media entities and other online marketing techniques. We hope that our increase in individual-game sales shows that these efforts were effective.

Artist rendering of the new Ballston practice facility
Part of our excitement and anticipation for 2006-07 includes the opening of our new practice facility in Arlington, atop the parking garage at the Ballston Common Mall. Construction is coming along nicely, and this state-of-the-art facility is scheduled to open in October. With two sheets of ice, it will offer us a great place to train and also plenty of ice time for community needs. Our practices will continue to be open to the public and free of charge, so it’s a great way to see our players and the speed of the game up-close. I look forward to seeing you there.

In addition to the rink at Ballston, our commitment to our rebuilding plan for the team will continue to bear fruit with the 2006-07 Washington Capitals. How much we improve remains to be seen. I was happy to hear Alex’s interviews with Elliot in the Morning, and others, in which he said that he expects to be in the playoffs next spring. I hope that’s true, but we don’t have a timetable on this rebuilding process. We do, however, expect to make quantifiable, continued improvements. We are not interested in a quick-fix, flash-in-the-pan remedy. We want to build a team that lasts, is competitive for the long haul, and results in a Stanley Cup championship. The best way to do that is by constructing a team from within and adding the necessary ingredients in balance.

There’s no timeline we’re measuring ourselves against. We just want to continue to add talent and continue to improve. If we do that next season, we will have another Capitals team that fans can be proud of – and one that will build on this year’s optimism and excitement.

Enjoy the NHL playoffs – it’s great to have hockey back – and consider a Hershey Bears game; it’s a great experience.

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