The Capitals have suffered more than their fair share of misfortune and indignity over the years and decades. But just days after the conclusion of that last dismal season, a bright shaft of light shone through the Capitals’ transom. Washington won the draft lottery and the right to select the consensus first overall pick, Russian left wing Alex Ovechkin
Quite simply, Ovechkin is the kind of player who puts fannies into seats and then lifts those same fannies out of those seats. His motor never stops. He is competitive, gregarious, electrifying and exciting. In just his third preseason game, Ovechkin recorded a hat trick. Even in the two games in which he did not register a point, he was clearly one of the best players on the ice.
Ovechkin is a cornerstone for this franchise going forward. Although he just turned 20, he has leadership qualities and the potential to be one of the best players in the game. He draws an inordinate amount of attention from opposing defenses, thereby carving a wider swath for his linemates. It should be a joy watching him perform for the next 15 years or so.
Speaking of linemates, Ovechkin will open the season on the left side of a unit that features right wing-turned-center Dainius Zubrus and center-turned-right wing Halpern. Zubrus appears to be at full strength after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason and Halpern was among the league’s top preseason goal scorers with five.
“As a winger, I guess you can say there is a little less responsibility,” says Zubrus. “You have your side of the ice, you go up and down the boards and try to score goals. Once I got moved to center I just felt like there was much more freedom of movement. The responsibility is higher but you get to move much more and you get to make some decisions.”
Zubrus played some center for the Caps in 2003-04, but Halpern’s switch to the wing is a relatively new development.
“For me it’s a learning process,” he says. “I’ve played a bit of wing before so it’s not a big deal. I think I know playing center a little bit more and it comes a little bit easier. I think with Zubie it has a lot to do with who the low guy is and we’re able to switch a few times during the game. There are just a few things I need to learn and work on. For me, if it helps the team, then it will work.”
Three newcomers – Jeff Friesen, Andrew Cassels and Petr Sykora – populate what is likely to be Washington’s second scoring line. Left wing Friesen joined the Capitals in a trade with New Jersey just nine days before the season opener. The speedy winger is blessed with great hands and could flourish in an NHL where forwards can cruise into the offensive zone unimpeded by sticks and arms.
At 36, center Andrew Cassels is the oldest player on the team. A crafty center, he has helped previous linemates to seasons of 30 or more goals and has recorded more than 40 assists in seven of his 15 NHL seasons. Nine years ago, he and Friesen were linemates for Team Canada at the 1996 IIHF World Championships in Vienna.
“Obviously two weeks isn’t very long to play with someone and then go nine years [without playing with them],” observes Cassels. “but at least you’ve played with them. It’s more along the lines of knowing someone personally. I think when you know someone personally, you take that more to heart. You want to play well for the guys you play on your line with.
“Jeff has great speed and can fly down the wing and shoot the puck. He loves to get the puck and get some speed going, so hopefully it works out well.”
Friesen is also excited about the prospects of skating with Cassels again after all these years.
“Cass is an easy guy to play with,” says Friesen. “He is a smart hockey player, he is a great playmaker and you always know where he is. Nine years ago I was literally a kid. I think I was 19 or 20 years old. Cass was a veteran and he treated me unbelievably well. He doesn’t have an ego and he is one of the best guys in the game. It’s great to play with him. I’m really looking forward to playing with him again.”
Friesen has enjoyed five 20-goal seasons in the league, eclipsing the 30-goal barrier once. He has hopes of his trio finding the sort of chemistry that leads to red lights flashing behind opposing nets.
“You need three guys working together on a line,” he declares. “With Cassels and Sykora, hopefully we can find that chemistry. When three guys find that chemistry, the sky is the limit. It’s automatic. Hopefully we can become that line and become a top line in the NHL.”
Sykora has but two games of NHL experience and those came relatively long ago, with Nashville in 1998-99. But the big winger posted 25 goals for Pardubice in the Czech League last season, tied for tops on his team and tied for third in the league. He has long been considered one of the best players outside of the NHL and the Capitals are happy to finally have the 26-year-old winger in a Washington sweater.
The rest of Washington
Brian Sutherby and Mathieu Biron
’s forwards are feature a blend of grit, speed, toughness, leadership and moxie with some skill sprinkled here and there. Centers Brian Sutherby and Boyd Gordon are both former first- rounders who have drafted and developed by the Capitals. Sutherby is tougher than a mess hall steak and plays the game with a rugged, Original Six mentality. Only a nagging groin injury has kept him from making his mark in the league earlier. He is just 23 and is itching to play a full, healthy season in the league. Gordon is a dogged, determined pivot who plays an intelligent, positional game. A skilled penalty killer, Gordon’s smarts belie his age (he turns 22 on Oct. 19).
The Caps imported a pair of wingers who competed against one another for the Stanley Cup some 14 months ago. Former Tampa Bay winger Ben Clymer is a converted defenseman with excellent speed and defensive abilities. Ex-Flame Chris Clark is also a speed merchant, but he possesses some snarl and is a stand-up teammate. He earned the respect of teammates, coaches and fans when he went after Buffalo bully Andrew Peters – some four inches and 47 pounds larger than Clark – after Peters laid a dubious hit on one of Clark’s Washington teammates in a preseason game.
Another imported winger is former Shark and Penguin Matt Bradley. A speed burner who can get into the corners quickly and make a nuisance of himself, Bradley posted a remarkable plus-22 in just 54 games in his first season in the league. He is also durable; he played in all 82 games with Pittsburgh in 2003-04.
Three familiar faces round out the Washington roster. Left wing Matt Pettinger is a second-rounder from 2000 who debuted with the Caps in 2000-01 and has since played two full seasons in Washington. He is a hard-working, hustling winger who is capable of chipping in some offense.
Right wing Stephen Peat is a converted defenseman who has served as the team’s enforcer for three seasons. He totaled 142 PIM in his first 65 NHL games but logged only 90 in 64 contests in 2003-04. Once one of the most feared fighters in the WHL, Peat can still put on a fistic show when he’s motivated to do so.
Brian Willsie is a versatile, two-way forward who can play anywhere up front and can play on both special teams. He scored 10 goals in 49 games for Washington in 2003-04 and was a big scorer at the AHL level. With enough playing time, Willsie could be a very pleasant surprise.
Washington will also have a strong crop of young forwards playing just up the road in Hershey this season. Jared Aulin, Chris Bourque
, Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, Jonas Johansson, Jakub Klepis and Brooks Laich
are some of the next wave of forwards who hope to be skating the MCI Center surface soon.
Hanlon has several years of experience as an NHL assistant and several more as a head coach in the AHL. He has been part of the Caps’ organization since 1999-2000, when he began a three-year run as coach of the team’s AHL affiliate in Portland. He just finished running his first training camp as an NHL head coach, having taken over the reins in the middle of 2003-04. He may not have as much talent as he hoped for in all the years he dreamed of getting to this point, but he would never tell you that and never make an excuse out of it.
Jay Leach and Dean Evason are Hanlon’s assistants on the ice. Dave Prior handles the goaltenders, Jack Blatherwick is the team’s physiologist and Todd Woodcroft assists with video.
Leach spent half of the 2003-04 season as an assistant in Washington and spent last season as an assistant to Tim Army at Portland. Having been with the team’s younger players for a season, he knows their abilities and personalities well.
Evason is a former Capital whose previous coaching experience came in the Western Hockey League, where he was able to acquaint himself with several current players in the Capitals’ organization.
“On non-game days, they are very busy,” says Hanlon of his assistant coaches. “Jay does the specialty teams and Dean chips in with that. Dean does all of the pre-scouting, so he keeps a real close book on the league. Those are the two main things for them. The implementing of practices, they do a lot of that. We sit down and talk and we know on a specific day what our theme is, whether it’s defensive zone coverage or forechecking or whatever, but they do the actual implementing of it on the ice.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that if you don’t empower your people they become looked at in the players’ minds as puck-chasers. The players have to know that these guys make major decisions for us. We’re a team, the three of us and we all share the responsibilities. Dave Prior is totally goalies, so we have zero input with goalies, which is nice.”
Prior is the goaltending mentor, not only in Washington, but throughout the organization. He has been with the Capitals for nearly a decade and his tenure spans three different head coaches.
“What we lack in experience we make up in youthful enthusiasm,” says Hanlon, speaking of his players, not his coaches. “We’re just trying to be a very fit hockey team. We’ve hired somebody – Jack Blatherwick – who worked with the U.S. Olympic team in 1980. He has a history with George and I and he is just a brilliant man. He is responsible for the conditioning of the team.
“We have put some demands on these guys physically that we would never get away with in the past. These guys have worked so hard and I have never had so much fun coaching. I have always had hard-working teams; that has never been a problem. But at the NHL level there always seems to be different agendas. But this year our veteran guys are just great people.”
A close friend of the late Herb Brooks, Blatherwick is a bit of a maverick whose ability to think outside the box is refreshing in a game where ritual and tradition sometimes rule over common sense. Known to players as “Cardiac Jack” when he helped condition Brooks’ Rangers teams in the 1980s, Blatherwick has introduced some new ideas into the Caps’ conditioning culture.
The Caps endure many hard and rigorous practices with a heavy emphasis on skating. They sometimes skate while wearing 30- pound sand vests. But Blatherwick has moved the team’s off-ice conditioning onto the ice.
“You work out in the summer, but ask any hockey player and they’ll tell you that when you get to camp it’s completely different,” says Halpern. “All this stuff on the bike and the running can’t replace the on-ice stuff. Our on-ice work has become off-ice conditioning.”
“Skating is going to be key and we have a good skating team,” says Willsie. “That is going to work well for us.”
In addition to having less off-ice work, the Caps’ reward for their hard practices will be more days off and fewer morning skates during the season. The idea is that high-tempo practices will result in high-tempo performance during games. While other teams are taking traditional January shortcuts in their practice rituals, the well- conditioned Caps might have an edge.
“As far as having more days off and fewer morning skates, if you look at teams like Anaheim and Calgary in their playoff runs the last couple of years,” offers Halpern. “Talking to players on those teams, they had a lot of time off down the stretch and they looked like fresher teams. They were out-skating teams. If we are able to work hard when we need to, then we will be able to sit back and relax at other times. I think that’s his goal for our team.”
“I think that with anything that is innovative, there is risk,” admits Hanlon. “When you are on the cutting edge of something that is not the norm, there is risk. It is up to your top players to buy into it and I hope they have. Even the greatest ideas cannot be successful unless people are willing to carry them out. There has to be some blind faith that what we’re doing is really for their best interests. It’s not like we’re asking them to eat something that’s really weird. If you want to be a better skater, you have to skate.
“The length of the practices will shorten up now, but they’ve worked hard. No team can take this idea now and start it. If you don’t start it from day one, you can’t all of a sudden have what we call ‘three-period practices.’ If you want to keep teams uncomfortable for three periods, somewhere in your practice routine you’ve got to practice like a three-period game. The real key here is how we’re skating in December, not how we’re skating in September. That’s what we’re trying to sell here, that we can do this all year long. We have strategically placed these types of practices into our schedule. The players know two months ahead of time what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it.” more...