Just over a year ago, the Washington Capitals signed then free agent defenseman Brian Pothier to a four-year contract for a total of $10 million. In the time that has elapsed since that date, that deal looks like more and more of a bargain each day.
Certainly the escalating salaries around the league are part of the reason why Washington is happy to have Pothier locked up at a reasonable rate for the next three seasons. But the 30-year-old defenseman’s play in his first season in the District also factors into that reasoning.
Pothier totaled five goals and 35 points in 77 games with the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06, averaging 16:46 a night in ice time in the process. In his first year in a Capitals’ uniform, Pothier saw his ice time rise more than 40 percent to an average of 23:59 per contest.
He started strongly and also finished the season on a roll. There was a difficult stretch in the middle of the campaign during which he fought through a bout with a virus (but did not miss a game) and then suffered a concussion that sidelined him for a month. The virus robbed him of much of his strength and energy and wore him down. The same bug knocked many of his teammates out of the lineup.
In his first 37 games of 2006-07, Pothier had 16 assists and posted a plus-1 defensive rating. At that point, the Caps were in the midst of a post-holiday stretch in which they had to play four games in a span of just five nights. In the midst of that stretch, a violent virus hit several players hard. It took a few out of the lineup and sapped the strength from several others.
Pothier refused to make any excuses after the illness, but the numbers don’t lie. He was a minus-10 in the 10 games during and after he was afflicted with the bug. It was at that point that he suffered a concussion after a hard hit against the boards in Carolina on Jan. 18. He missed the next 10 games.
Pothier returned to action in mid-February. During his absence from the lineup, the Caps obtained defenseman Milan Jurcina in a deal with Boston. Jurcina quickly found a level of chemistry with Shaone Morrisonn, another ex-Bruin who had been Pothier’s defense partner for most of the season’s first half.
Upon returning to the lineup, Pothier was slotted alongside rookie defenseman Jeff Schultz
and the pair meshed well for the remainder of the season. Although Washington went 5-15-5 in the season’s final 25 contests, Pothier recorded a respectable two goals and nine points to go along with a minus-2 during that span.
“I think Glen has made a conscious effort to manage minutes a bit better for me and I think it has paid off,” Pothier observed late in the season. “I am playing different kind of minutes than I was in the beginning of the season.”
Rather than being used as part of a “shutdown” tandem with Morrisonn, Pothier finished the season playing second pair minutes with Schultz. Pothier logged 25 or more minutes in 23 of the season’s first 40 games, but exceeded the 25-minute mark only five times in his final 32 tilts of the season.
“When you’re in the game, you feel part of it,” notes Pothier. “You’re in the flow. You’re getting on the power play, you’re killing penalties, you’re playing four-on-four, [you’re playing in] every situation. When I am not playing all those minutes like that, I am not in every situation. It’s different. You end up sitting on the bench for five minutes at a time. You’re not quite in the flow of it. You can’t make excuses for that. You’ve got to go out and perform regardless of how many minutes you have. But I think anybody would tell you the more minutes they play, the more into the game they are.”
Pothier adjusted well, first to the large increase in ice time at the beginning of the season, then to the slight cutback in the second half. After the season ended, he traveled to Moscow to represent Team USA at the IIHF World Championships. In a casual conversation there, he mentioned that he thought he played his best hockey and was at his most comfortable when paired with Schultz for the final 25 games of the season.
Playing for Team USA at the Worlds, Pothier found himself in a similar role to that which he occupied in Washington. He was the oldest and most experienced blueliner on a very young American blueline corps. He played about 30 minutes a night, played in all situations and was very steady, heady and poised with and without the puck. And we weren’t the only ones who thought so.
“He had a terrific tournament,” said Team USA head coach Mike Sullivan, minutes after the Americans were eliminated in a heartbreaking shootout loss to Finland. “I thought he was our best defenseman. He played a lot of minutes for us, he quarterbacked our power play, he was playing against the other team’s top players, we played him in every situation and I thought he really responded. Not to mention he provided an element of leadership for our team. He’s just a good person and a great competitor and I thought he had a real good tournament for us.”
For his part, the Moscow experience was great for Pothier as well.
“It was a real great experience for me,” he exudes. “Unfortunately I’ve never been able to play any international hockey or USA Hockey, so that was the first time I was able to wear the stars and stripes. To do it the way we did it, I thought was great. We had a young team that overachieved. We had a great game with Finland. It could have gone either way at the end there, and unfortunately we came up a few inches short. I think the guys are really proud of the way we played and they’re looking forward to another opportunity next year.”
In a perfect world, Pothier will be playing for Washington in the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring while some other American-born blueliner assumes his role as the go-to guy on the Team USA backline. Regardless of when he next represents his country, Pothier played an important role in providing leadership and helping along some promising young American defensemen this spring.
“I love the direction that USA Hockey is going in right now,” he says. “That development program makes players so equipped and so ready not only to play college hockey, but to play in the NHL. Guys like Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson, these kids can play the game and they’re 18 and 19 years old. It just blows me away. If you take a bunch of kids when they’re 16 and 17 for a five-year period and grow them up together and teach them that it’s not all right to lose, teach them a winning mindset and pour great stuff into them, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have a winning recipe come 2010. Whether it’s that Olympics or the next one, you’re going to have a real competitive team.”
Pothier is also happy with the direction in which the Capitals’ defense is headed.
“We’re improving every game,” he says. “We’re all learning. We’re a pretty young group of defensemen, including myself. As far as age, I’m a little bit older than some of the guys but the amount of games I’ve played [in the NHL] isn’t really a ton. We’re learning. It’s just a matter of getting the experience and getting the games in us and as we continue to get those games and get fine tuned by the coaches on gaps and other points of sound defensive hockey, we’re going to get better every game.”
After signing with Washington last summer, Pothier and his family settled into a house in the area. The clan is spending its summer in the area, enjoying some of the local attractions and cultural hotspots. But he’s also busy working on making himself a better hockey player.
“I’ll be taking in the local summer and doing things with my family and kids,” he says. “On the same note, I’ll be here quite a bit at the Kettler facility. I will be here a few hours every day preparing and working and trying to make myself better for next year. I am trying to get quicker and a little bit bigger. And hopefully some smarts come in there, too.”
The Caps are happy with Pothier as is, but they won’t complain if he shows up a shade smarter in 2007-08.