When the Washington Capitals signed free agent defenseman Brian Pothier to a four-year deal worth $10 million on July 1, it marked the first time in several years that the Capitals made a multi-year free agent foray for a defenseman. Washington’s previous experiences with defensemen on the free agent market can be termed dubious, at best. But there are plenty of differences between those previous signings and this summer’s signing of Pothier.
After the Capitals finished the 1995-96 season 22nd on the NHL’s power play ledger, then-general manager David Poile signed 32-year-old veteran defenseman Phil Housley to a three-year deal worth $10.75 million in July, 1996. The deal made Housley the highest paid player in franchise history and also included a no-trade clause.
Although Housley led Washington defensemen in scoring in both of his seasons as a Cap, his combined total of 71 points in those two campaigns was actually less than the single full-season average (73) of his long career to that point. The Caps missed the playoffs in his first season with the team, ending a run of 14 straight postseason appearances and leading to Poile’s dismissal. The Caps made it to the Cup finals after Housley’s second season in Washington, but because he was not dependable in his own end, he was used sparingly during the playoffs and was even a healthy scratch at times.
Because of the no-trade clause, the only way to move Housley and his contract was to place him on waivers and hope another NHL club claimed him. The Calgary Flames did so on July 21, 1998, taking on the final year of his contract nearly two years to the day after the Caps signed Housley.
Days before Housley was waived, the Caps made another plunge into free agent defenseman waters. This time, they bestowed a four-year, $11.5 million contract upon Dmitri Mironov, also 32 at the time.
Washington had hoped to sign free agent defenseman Jyrki Lumme that summer; Lumme had been in Vancouver during Caps general manager George McPhee’s tenure there. But when Phoenix signed Lumme by offering more term and more money than the Caps had planned on offering, Washington realized it would have to bump its budget and offer more term if it wanted to land a free agent blueliner. Mironov had the endorsement of Caps’ head coach Ron Wilson, who had coached him when both were with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
The Mironov signing also turned out miserably for Washington. Back problems limited him to just 155 games over the first three years of the deal. The Russian defenseman failed his physical heading into his fourth season with the team, and insurance paid for the final year owed on his contract.
Even at his healthiest, Mironov did not produce nearly as much as Washington had hoped when it signed him. The big defenseman averaged 47 points a season in the two years prior to joining the Caps, but managed only 46 points during his three-year, 155-game Capitals career. Like Housley, he was also somewhat challenged in his own end.
On July 7, 2000, the Capitals signed blueliner Sylvain Cote to a three-year deal for a very reasonable $4.35 million. The 34-year-old Cote was returning to Washington for his second tour of duty; he had been an exemplary performer for the Capitals from 1991-98. But the venerable defenseman had lost a step. He had posted a cumulative plus-78 during his first tour of duty in D.C. In the first two seasons of his three-year deal, Cote was minus-18. After playing only one game in the third season of that pact, the Caps bought out the remainder of Cote’s contract and he quietly retired.
It has been six years since the Caps laid out a multi-year deal for a free agent defensemen, but it seems they made a good decision in ending that drought by giving a four-year deal to Pothier.
At 29, Pothier is at least three years younger than all the multi-year free agent defensemen who preceded him in Washington. Instead of being past his prime years, he is just entering them. He should also have quite a bit of tread remaining on his tires; Pothier has played just 182 NHL games. Cote had logged 1,032 games, Housley 990 and Mironov 401 (plus several seasons as a pro in the U.S.S.R. with the Soviet Wings) by the time they signed with Washington.
With the new rules and the new style of play in the NHL, Pothier’s game is a good fit in Washington. The Caps can use a solid power play point man who can also play on the penalty killing unit and take a regular shift. Washington was 26th in the NHL in power play prowess last season, an area Pothier should help bolster in 2006-07. He sees the ice well, thinks the game well and is adept at moving the puck. As a prototypical “new NHL” defenseman entering his prime, Pothier is poised to enjoy his best years with Washington.
“I am a mobile, puck-moving defenseman,” declares Pothier, when asked about his playing style. “I am at my best when I am getting back quick, getting the puck, turning it up and making a quick pass. I enjoy playing on the power play. I like getting involved in the offense.
“I think these new rules helped my game out a bit. I just want to continue to skate, continue to move the puck, and get pucks to the net and try to create opportunities for our forwards.”
Pothier was asked how the new rules specifically benefited his game.
“I think the biggest thing for me is the hooking,” he says. “Because you need to be able to skate, and big guys could just grab you, put their stick around your waist, sort of reel you in and just hammer you. And now they can’t do that.
“You need to be able to move your feet and get back to pucks. And when you turn up to make a play, guys can’t hook you now. That’s everything for me. If I can just get half a step on a guy, it’s really difficult for them to catch me. If you can accelerate quickly and make good passes, that’s where you’re really going to benefit.”
Pothier has come a long way during his career, and he believes he still has a great deal of upside. He is looking forward to assuming a larger role on a rebuilding Capitals team after spending the last several seasons as a support player on a strong Ottawa Senators team. For a guy who was not drafted and who has had to earn everything he has gotten in this game, the four-year contract is a ringing endorsement.
“I wasn’t a really heavily recruited kid coming out of high school,” says Pothier, “but I had an opportunity to go to [the University of New Hampshire], which was a bigger, high-end school. [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] was a smaller, technical school. But I decided that I needed to go to a school where I wasn’t going to be overwhelmed on or off the ice.
“So I went to R.P.I. and I got to play from day one. I was in the top five or six defensemen and I played a ton in every situation, right from freshman year. I think that was great for my development. They just sort of threw me out there; there was no off-ice learning period, I was just ‘in it.’ I think that made for big progress for me, because you either learn or fail. Gradually over the four years I was able to get better and better and I was able to sign right out of school with Atlanta. It worked out really well.”
In his senior season at R.P.I., Pothier was the team captain and was also named to the NCAA East Second All-American Team. He led R.P.I. blueliners in scoring and was third on the team, but it was a teammate who helped Pothier draw the attention of some NHL scouts. Like fellow R.P.I. alum and former Caps captain Adam Oates, Pothier was not drafted by an NHL club.
“Brad Tapper was a big recruit,” remembers Pothier of his former R.P.I. teammate. “He had a handful of teams come after him and offer him big money. All the teams that would come down to watch him, you’d try to have a good game at the right time and maybe a team would strike up some interest in me, too. And that’s exactly what happened, so it worked out perfectly.”
Days after finishing his senior season, Pothier signed with the Atlanta Thrashers on Mar. 27, 2000. He turned pro in 2000-01, playing for the Orlando Solar Bears in what turned out to be the final season of the now-defunct International Hockey League.
It turned out to be a memorable year. Pothier recorded a dozen goals and 41 points for Orlando and was named the final recipient of both the Garry F. Longman Memorial Trophy (awarded annually to the IHL’s Rookie of the Year) and the Ken McKenzie Trophy (awarded annually to the IHL’s U.S.-born Rookie of the Year). Even better, the Solar Bears won the Turner Cup as the final champions in the 56-year history of the IHL.
“It was really neat,” recalls Pothier. “I always look back at that year and say that it was like a fairy tale year. I went from playing in Troy, New York to wearing flip flops and shorts going to the rink every day. It was the most amazing bunch of guys, and we won the whole thing. It couldn’t have been any better; it was perfect. I was sort of spoiled my first year. I haven’t tasted the success of a championship since then, but that year has really good memories for me.”
He also got his first taste of NHL action late in that 2000-01 season, getting into three games with the Thrashers. Pothier made his NHL debut against Ottawa on Apr. 3, 2001, notching an impressive plus-3 on the night.
Pothier made the Thrashers’ opening night roster the following season, but ended up splitting the campaign between Atlanta and the team’s Chicago AHL affiliate. A week after the 2002 Entry Draft, the Thrashers dealt Pothier to Ottawa for veteran center Shawn McEachern and a sixth round choice in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
Pothier spent most of the 2002-03 campaign with the Sens’ Binghamton farm club in the AHL. The native of New Bedford, Mass. spent the entire 2003-04 season with the Senators, then returned to Binghamton where he played during the NHL lockout season of 2004-05.
When the 2005-06 season got underway, Pothier and several of his Binghamton teammates “graduated” to the NHL simultaneously. It is similar to the approach being taken in Washington now, where the Caps hope that their young nucleus of prospects will rise and develop and grow in the system and hopefully win championships together.
“I was in the Ottawa organization for four years,” states Pothier. “I grew up playing with Jason Spezza, Chris Kelly, Christoph Schubert, Antione Vermette and Ray Emery. It was a big core of guys, and we grew up together, learned the American League together, learned how to be great in that league and then sort of moved to the next level.
“If you keep plugging in free agents, it gets hard to go out and buy chemistry. It’s really difficult to do. It was great for us that we all came up together, and knew each other so well. We were just comfortable on and off the ice together. I think that was reflected in our play. We trusted each other.”
With Ottawa last season, Pothier played for former Capitals bench boss Bryan Murray, who is now the Senators’ head coach.
“If he is not the best coach I’ve ever had, he is right up there,” Pothier says of Murray. “He is honest, fair, confident, intense. He has all these great attributes. The biggest thing I appreciated about him is that he is just real. He is just real. If you messed up, he will tell you that you messed up. If you were good, he will tell you that you were good. There are no mind games; what you see is what you get. I really enjoyed him. I think he brought a sort of swagger and a confidence to our dressing room and it really made a difference out there.”
Pothier had a career year with the Sens in 2005-06. He notched five goals and 35 points, and was second among Senators’ defensemen in assists and fourth in points. His plus-29 was the fifth best mark among all NHL defensemen. Playing with seasoned and stellar NHL defensemen such as Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden and Chris Phillips, Pothier’s ice time was generally limited to a regular shift and some power play time. As a result, he averaged just 16:46 per night in ice time over the course of the season.
During his minor league days, Pothier was a workhorse who played in all situations. Late last season, the Sens found themselves playing without Chara, Redden and Phillips all at the same time. They turned to Pothier to assume a larger ice time burden, and he handled it well, playing more than 23 minutes in eight straight games down the stretch. He knows his ice time is likely to climb to over 20 minutes a night with Washington, and he relishes the increase.
“I think that is exactly where I need to be,” declares Pothier. “If you get too high, you almost have to be a freak of nature to excel. At 27 and above, you really have to be physically at a different level. But at 20 to 23 and even 24 and 25, that’s when you are really in the game. You’re in the flow of the game. You’re on the power play, the penalty kill, you’re in every situation and your confidence is oozing. That’s when I feel like I am at my best.
“Those 10 games I was able to play when all those guys were hurt, that’s the time of year that I look back on as being the most fun. It was fun to just go out and play, and not have to wait. This year, there were a lot of penalties. No penalty kill for me, so I’d sit there and wait, wait for a power play here and there. But those minutes are exactly what I feel I’d be at my best with.”
Pothier’ strong play in the second half of 2005-06 and during that stretch when Chara, Redden and Phillips were sidelined helped to raise his profile around the league and draw more interest from NHL clubs once the bidding for his services began on July 1. Pothier spent less than a day on the market.
“You’re not really allowed to communicate before that,” he says in commenting on the free agency process, “but you know if a team is interested and where you might fit and what kind of dynamic you might bring to the game. From the Olympic break on, I was a different player. I played with a little more confidence and I had a great second half. In the playoffs, I scored a couple big goals and that definitely helps things out. I had no idea it would be as involved as it was once free agency hit. There were quite a few teams that were interested.”
With all the interest generated by his play, Pothier and his family (he has a wife and two young boys) had to make a decision on where to spend the next several years of their lives.
“We wanted to go to a city that was a great city, and a family oriented city where we could feel comfortable,” says Pothier. “We’re not really big city people. We didn’t want to live in downtown anywhere, we’re more suburbia people. On top of that, it had to be a great mix of that plus a great team, a team where you are wanted and where you can play minutes and really be a part of it. This was the perfect culmination of all those things. It is an amazing city. And I will be able to play some minutes here and be a big part of this team. It is a great city, great family atmosphere and great environment.”
The fraternity of hockey players is a tightly knit one, even among players who play in different cities and different leagues. You constantly hear things about other organizations, and Pothier heard only good about the Capitals, another factor that influenced his decision.
“I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about the organization and the coaching staff,” he exuded. “Playing against them, they are tenacious and all on the same page. From the reputation around the league, the guys here are all stand-up guys and there are no knuckleheads here. Around the league this team has a reputation for being a team of good, hard-working kids.”
One of those good, hard-working kids is Calder Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, a guy Pothier played against on four occasions last season.
“I know he is an unbelievable hockey player,” says Pothier of Ovechkin. “I played against him four times and every time he was on the ice, I was three steps behind where I usually am. He is a phenomenal player. Anybody who watched him this year knows he is one of the best in the league as a rookie, which is amazing. I really look forward to the opportunity of playing with him.
“He is the type of player that he is so explosive and so deceptive. He can change speeds so quickly and he is so strong too; you can’t really corner him. Toward the end of the year, the Caps beat us 1-0 [in Ottawa] and some of our big guys were out, Phillips, Chara and Redden were all out that night and I was able to get quite a bit more ice [time]. I played a little bit against Alex. It’s scary because I got in a situation one-on-one with him a few times, and his speed is just at another level. You really have to be conservative and back up and let him do his thing and try to limit him. You can’t stop him. You really just need to try to contain him and give him the worst shot possible.
“I look forward to watching him score goals and do those crazy celebrations he’s always doing. He’s fun to watch, he is an exciting player and to be able to watch him 82 games a year now is going to be a treat for me.”
Having played against the Montreal Canadiens eight times in each of the last two NHL seasons, Pothier has also seen a lot of another of his new Washington teammates.
“I’m excited about [Richard] Zednik,” says Pothier. “I played against him eight times last year and he is dynamic player. He is strong, physical, he is really, really strong on the puck and he makes great plays. He is a goal scorer with speed and he will be a good asset for sure.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, Pothier was a Boston Bruins fan. He looked up to two Boston blueliners in particular.
“Of course, Ray Bourque,” he responds quickly, when asked which defensemen he admired and patterned his game after as a youngster. “And I really liked Don Sweeney. I appreciate the way that guy worked. He was just a warrior. He got it done every night. Not the biggest guy, but he battled and he fought. Those two guys were probably my favorites. And tenure probably had something to do with it. The longer they stay the more you get to know them.”
Now Pothier hopes to establish some tenure in Washington. If he can merely see his way to the end of his just-signed contract with the Caps, he’ll surpass the free agent defensemen who came before him in the District. For now, Pothier is happy to be back “home,” and happy to have a chance at being a key cog with an up-and-coming organization.
“I am from the United States and I have played in Canada the last four years, and it’s nice to be home,” admits Pothier. “It’s nice to be playing in this nation’s capital instead of that nation’s capital. That was a great organization and a great city, but I am really looking forward to being back in the States and helping to build a great organization here.
“They’re young, they’re aggressive, they play a fun style of hockey, and they are an exciting team. They have some amazing talent and great goaltending. They are an organization that is absolutely going in the right direction and it’s really exciting for me to be a part of that.”
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