Whether you are building or rebuilding a team, you won’t get far without goaltending. The Capitals are fortunate to have 35-year-old veteran Olie Kolzig between the pipes. Kolzig was the team’s first-round draft choice in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft; his tenure in the organization spans half of the franchise’s history. No player has even been in the organization continuously for as long as Kolzig. He has been the No. 1 netminder since opening night of the 1997-98 season.
“Olie is the No. 1 guy,” asserts Caps general manager George McPhee. “We know what he can do. He carried this team to the Stanley Cup finals. He has won a Vezina. He actually played better two years after he won the Vezina. He has the physical attributes you are looking for. The mental part of the game with Olie, when everything is on the line, he doesn’t wilt. He battles. And that’s what you want from your athletes.”
Kolzig is in the final year of a multi-year contract. He has stated a desire to start and finish his career in Washington but has also intimated that if the rebuilding phase takes more than two or three years, he’d prefer to move on and have a chance at winning a Stanley Cup. If Washington’s rebuilding process takes quick root, he could be signed to a contract extension.
Maxime Ouellet, obtained from Philadelphia in the 2002 trade that sent Adam Oates to the Flyers, was expected to serve as Kolzig’s backup this season. After a stellar 2002-03 season in the AHL, Ouellet had difficulty adjusting to the new rink dimensions and markings last season. He also suffered a late-season ankle injury and had suffered through an off year. During training camp this fall, a tendency to leave rebounds resurfaced and led to a dismal camp. On the eve of the season opener, Washington hedged its bet on Ouellet by claiming Brent Johnson off waivers from Vancouver.
Johnson has won as many as 34 games in an NHL season and was the No. 1 guy in St. Louis for a while. He has fallen on hard times in the last few seasons, but the Capitals like his raw and technical skills and believe he can be an asset going forward.
With the NHL referees calling a stricter game in terms of obstruction fouls this season, the job description of an NHL defenseman has changed a bit. Big, lumbering blueliners who patrolled the front of the net and issued two-handed cracks to opposing forwards may be going the way of the dinosaur. Size is still preferred, but quick, mobile, smart, puck-moving defensemen are the order of the day.
“The mobile defenseman who can do the right things with the puck is going to be far better off under this system than the big strong guy who would sort of hold his position and then get you someplace and grab onto you,” predicts McPhee. “What we like is that our young guys are guys who have size but they’re also really mobile and they make good decisions with the puck. That’s why it is imperative that we keep the rules the same way. We are well positioned to play under this kind of system and under these kinds of rules. Our young players will excel if this is the way we keep it.”
Three of those big
young defensemen – Steve Eminger, Shaone Morrisonn and Nolan Yonkman – made the opening night roster. Eminger and Morrisonn both have about a half season’s worth of NHL experience. Both played full seasons in the AHL in 2004-05 and should be ready to assert themselves as regulars in the NHL.
“I think it’s important that they do,” says Hanlon. “That’s our plan. They have played more than half a season so they’re not coming into training camp with no clue of what the NHL is all about. They’re two kids on defense who just fit perfectly with what we are trying to do, working with our young players and having them develop.”
Eminger had a strong camp. Morrisonn got off to a solid start but was hindered by a groin injury suffered in the first preseason game. Yonkman has been snake-bitten by an unfortunate series of injuries over the last three years, but his tantalizing combination of size and speed (he’s 6-foot-6, 240 pounds) makes him worth nurturing. Health and experience would be the best things he and the Caps could hope for.
The rest of the opening night blueline corps is comprised of veterans. Brendan Witt is the leader in terms of experience with 568 NHL games accumulated over nine seasons in Washington. Entering the final year of his contract and able to opt for unrestricted free agency next summer, Witt has asked the Capitals to trade him. McPhee has said he would attempt to do so, but the market figures to bring more in return later rather than sooner.
“I like Brendan so much I’m still hoping that we can find a way to have him change his mind,” says Hanlon, “or at least create an environment here where he is extremely happy because he is so important to us.”
The other three defensemen are newcomers with varying degrees of NHL experience. Thirty-four-year-old Jamie Heward last played in the NHL with Columbus in 2001-02. He spent the last three seasons playing for Switzerland but impressed Hanlon when the Caps’ bench boss was helping to coach Team Canada in the 2004 Spengler Cup tournament in Davos, Switzerland.
Heward displayed a good knack for moving the puck and a hard shot from the point during the preseason. He routinely logged more than 20 minutes a night and led the team’s defensemen in scoring with six points (one goal, five assists) in five games.
Bryan Muir has played in 181 NHL games with several different teams and earned a Stanley Cup ring with the 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche. Along with forwards Ben Clymer and Jeff Friesen, Muir is one of three Capitals players with that distinction. Muir also impressed during camp and the preseason, picking up at least a point in each of the four games in which he played. The 32-year-old finished with a goal and five points and showed himself capable of working on the power play.
Mathieu Biron was drafted in the first round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft but was traded from Los Angeles to the Islanders less than a year later. He played regularly with the Isles as a 19-year-old but has had trouble finding a permanent home since. Still only 25 years old, Biron’s size (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) keeps teams interested. The Capitals are his sixth different NHL organization. He has 201 games worth of NHL experience. Jeff Schultz
and Mike Green
– two of the team’s first-round picks in the 2004 Entry Draft – really opened eyes at training camp this year. Schultz will conclude his junior career with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen this season while Green gets his first taste of pro hockey at Hershey. Washington also drafted several defensemen later in the 2004 draft and exercised its first four choices on blueliners in 2005. The hope is that these young rearguards will be ready to compete for NHL jobs in the District in the not-too-distant future.
Throughout much of Kolzig’s tenure between the Washington pipes, the Caps have had a deep group of veteran defensemen. He’ll now adjust to having a younger group in front of him, but he realizes that every veteran was once a raw rookie.
“They can read situations because they have seen it so many times over the course of their career,” he says when asked about the biggest different between seasoned and inexperienced defensemen. “They are a lot more patient whereas a young guy has so much energy and is anxious to do something and he doesn’t allow the play to come to him. He wants to take charge and sometimes you get burned that way.
“I think the experienced guys realize there is a goaltender back there, there is another [defensive] partner and there are three forwards who are part of the team as well. The experienced guy uses the rest of the guys around him whereas the young guys think they need to do something outstanding or do too much. They gain experience and they realize that it is a team sport. They realize they are responsible for certain things and other guys are responsible for something else. And that’s how you last long enough to play 900 games in the league.” more...