Archive for September 2006

Captain Kono Calls it a Career

September 29, 2006

It is ironic that Steve Konowalchuk, whose gritty and tenacious play exemplified “heart” in each of the 790 NHL games in which he appeared, would be forced to retire early because of a heart ailment. The former Caps captain, who was traded to the Colorado Avalanche early in the 2003-04 season, announced his retirement earlier today.

After receiving a number of opinions and subsequent medical opinions, Konowalchuk was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome, a genetic condition involving electrical conduction that can lead to irregular heart rhythms.

The 33-year-old native of Salt Lake City was Washington’s third round choice (58th overall) in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. Along with Ryan Walter and Brendan Witt, Konowalchuk is one of only three of the 13 team captains in Capitals franchise history to have been drafted into the Washington organization.

My favorite Kono memories are of his days on what was at the time the best shutdown line in the NHL. Along with Jeff Halpern and Ulf Dahlen, Kono formed a line that owned opponents in the offensive zone, cycled the puck effortlessly and forechecked relentlessly. They kept the opposition’s best off the scoreboard and generally kicked in with 50-60 goals of their own over the course of a full season. It seemed they drew a penalty or two each game, too.

Injuries kept him from representing his country at the 2002 and 2006 Olympic games, but Konowalchuk was a proud member of Team USA during the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. I covered that team for a week during its August training camp in Columbus, and was grateful for the chance to be able to talk to Kono again on a regular basis after practice each day.

In his early days with the Caps, Kono played on a line with Kelly Miller and Dale Hunter. Miller and Hunter effectively passed the torch of hard work and defensive diligence on to the young and eager Konowalchuk. Some years later, Kono himself passed it along to Halpern, who in turn imparted it to Brian Sutherby, Brooks Laich and other members of the 2006-07 squad.

Although he left Washington some three seasons ago, the sweat and blood and effort he expended over his 12 years with the organization remains woven in the fabric of this team and this franchise. Konowalchuk always carried himself like a true pro on and off the ice. He’ll do well in life after hockey, but he will be missed around the league.

I wish him and his family the best of luck and health, and many good fishing days.

Slash and Dash

September 29, 2006

When he heard Caps coach Glen Hanlon was planning on moving him back to the blueline, a position he had not played regularly in more than five years, Ben Clymer’s mind began racing with possibilities.

“I was just really caught off guard to begin with,” admits Clymer. “I was thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ I was running through all the different scenarios. What if it goes well? What if it goes moderately well? What if it goes horribly, where does that put me? I’m sure glad I have a multi-year contract and they can’t just ship me off to nowhere and forget about me forever. It plays into your insecurities. When I came to camp, Glennie was real good about saying, ‘Just go out and have fun every day. Whatever happens, just go out and have fun and play. Don’t worry about trying to split the atom out there. Just play.’ That allowed me to just go out and just let instinct take over, and not completely freewheel it, but not make it more than it has to be. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I am old enough and mature enough that if I just go out and do it, I will be fine.”

What started as a four-game “experiment” is now a done deal.

“I think he has played well,” assesses Hanlon. “We watched [Tuesday's] game [against Philadelphia] live and we watched it again [on tape] and we thought there has been a sharp increase in improvement. The other thing we like is that when we give him some instruction from the defenseman’s side of things, he has reacted to it and he has put it into play, which to me says that he can do it. I don’t want to give the player an out to think that, ‘Okay, if I have a couple bad games I’m going back to forward. But if he comes to me after 10 games and he just doesn’t think that it’s right and he’s not enjoying it, then we’ll re-evaluate it. [Tuesday] night he played 25 :12 and I think his average last year was somewhere in around 15 [minutes].”

Skeptical just weeks ago, Clymer does not sound like a guy who is going to ask for a re-evaulation after 10 games.

“Last game I had a lot of fun,” says Clymer. “It helps when the team wins 6-1, too, because everyone was playing well and it was just a fun game to play period. But yeah, it has been going well. Everyday I pick up a new thing that maybe I forget a few years ago. But in some ways I don’t want to forget all my forward stuff, either. Some of that helps out just to think the game a little bit differently than a lot of defensemen would think. Obviously [it has gone] much better than I would have thought, but that’s good.

“It’s fun. I like having the puck and on [defense] you have it so much more instead of just chasing it all night, which is what you do some nights on the forecheck. You dump it in and you are just chasing the puck. Now you look up, say, ‘Okay, this player is open, I’m going to pass it to him or pass it to this guy.’ You have the puck, you are having a direct outcome on what goes on out there which is fun. I guess if it goes the other way, it stinks. But I like the responsibility of it. I’m looking forward to it.”

Taking a player who was a contributing regular at Washington’s deepest position (wing) and successfully moving him to what most feel is the Capitals’ weakest area could make for a significant change in the team’s complexion and its fortunes for the upcoming season. Hanlon stated that the move would be permanent only if Clymer could establish himself as one of the team’s top four defensemen. The Minnesota native is arguably in the top three on the team’s defensive depth chart at the moment.

For all his worries, Clymer admits that moving from defense to forward as a 22-year-old NHL sophomore in the middle of the 2000-01 season was much tougher than his current transition.

“Oh, it was a thousand times harder,” he says. “It was hard. I had never done it. I just tried to go out and utilize my speed and try to get the puck. And when I had the puck try to hold onto it. And obviously somebody was there trying to take it away from me every time. This is a much easier transition than it was going to forward, just because I hadn’t played forward since I was maybe eight years old.”

This time, Clymer has the benefit of age, maturity, wisdom and several hundred games worth of NHL experience.

“Just my patience with the puck is much different than it was six years ago,” he notes. “I was nervous. You want to stay in the league, you want to make everyone happy. There is a lot of pressure that maybe you are putting on yourself, and factors that aren’t just strictly obvious as far as just trying to making the right play. Your first couple of years, you are worried about getting sent to the minors, or being a healthy scratch the next game, or ‘What’s going to happen if I take a risk and it doesn’t work out?’ That’s not the way to play the game. You should play the game trying to make a difference out there and trying to do good things. Granted, they’re not always going to work. But you try to make calculated risks versus just shooting from the hip. I like it so much better now. And a lot of it too, is that playing for Glennie is much different than playing for the other coaches I’ve had.”

One local scribe wonders how Clymer will be designated in the team’s media guide this season.

“We might go with ‘Slash’ for now,” he says.

Degrees of Separation

September 29, 2006

Alexandre Giroux is one of a handful of players fighting for one of the final roster spots as the Capitals prepare to open their 2006-07 regular season. The former junior teammate of Michael Ryder, Jiri Fischer, Ales Hemsky and Radim Vrbata, Giroux played under former Caps coach Bruce Cassidy in 2001-02, his first year as a pro. Last season, Giroux played under another former Caps bench boss, Jim Schoenfeld.

“Schoney was really great,” says Giroux, smiling at the mention of the big redhead’s name. “He said he had a chance to go back to the NHL as an assistant coach and a coach but he didn’t want to do it, he wanted to stay in the minors in Hartford and I think that was a great choice for players like me. At practice I got a lot stronger in skating and other abilities. He knows the game so well. He played, he was a coach and a general manager. When a guy like him has so much experience and he can share it with the guys, it really helps a lot.”

Giroux has also played alongside former Caps Kip Miller, Joel Kwiatkowski, Jason Doig, John Gruden, James Black, Josef Boumedienne and Ivan Ciernik during his pro career. He has worn the same minor league sweater as current Caps Brooks Laich and Brian Pothier and current Caps farmhands Lawrence Nycholat and Chad Wiseman.

When the Caps take on Philadelphia in a preseason contest at Verizon Center on Friday, Giroux will be skating on the right side of the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Dainius Zubrus. Those are a couple of guys Giroux would really like to be able to call teammates, and Glen Hanlon is the coach he really wants to play for.

“It was nice to be a free agent,” says Giroux, who signed with the Caps as an unrestricted free agent in July. “It was my first time I ever experienced that. A lot of teams called, it was quite a surprise. When Washington called, it was one of my top choices. I heard a lot of good things about the coaches. You want to go to an organization where they have good coaching and a good organization. Here, they had a lot of young guys who came from the American League last year. I played against a lot of those guys like [Brian] Sutherby and now they’re here. It was a good choice to come here.”

Giroux’s versatility is a plus as he tries to crack the roster. The Capitals are deepest on the wing, and Giroux’s best position is probably left wing, where the Caps are flush with the likes of Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Matt Pettinger, Tomas Fleischmann and others in Washington and throughout the organization. But Giroux can also play center and, as he will on Friday, the right side.

“I played center in junior,” he says. “I played left wing the last two years and since I’ve been in the American Hockey League I have been left wing and a couple times center when somebody was hurt. Last year, a couple times I played right wing. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Giroux might be able to shift the odds and the numbers a bit in his favor with a strong showing against the Flyers on Friday. But even if he does not find his name among Washington’s season opening 23-man roster, he is a good bet to be pulling on a blue, black and bronze sweater at some point this season.

A Call to Arm

September 27, 2006

A couple hours before last night’s preseason game between the Caps and the Flyers in Philadelphia, Alex Ovechkin was standing outside the Caps’ locker room working on his sticks. Painting them, taping them, torching them. I wondered aloud when was the last time he had used a stick with a three-quarter inch curve, the newly mandated maximum in the NHL this season.

“Three years ago, in Russia,” he said.

We talked a bit about Dave King’s dismissal as head coach of Mellaurg Magnitogorsk just eight games into the Russian Super League season. King himself said the news caught him off guard, and from the look on his face, I think it would be fair to characterize Ovechkin’s reaction similarly.

Finally, I had to ask. Knowing that Ovy was going to throw out the first pitch at tonight’s Nationals-Phillies game at RFK, I wondered if he had picked up a baseball at all recently.

“Nope.”

When was the last time you picked up a baseball, Alex?

“In Carolina, before the draft.”

The NHL trotted out a bunch of the top prospects that year, bringing them to storied Durham Bulls Athletic Park to toss some balls around and take some batting practice a day or two before the 2004 NHL Entry Draft in Raleigh.

Ovy likes to play basketball, and that game has a strong profile in Russia and obviously in his family as well. Baseball? Not so much. So when Ovy takes the hill at RFK tonight to throw out the first pitch, he’ll be more than two years between pitches. He’s a good athlete and he’ll do fine. Let’s just hope they monitor his pitch count. You’ve got to baby those 21-year-old arms.

One other thing I noticed while wandering the bowels of the Wachovia Center was a small sign that read: “Rodent Station.” This was not a hand-written sign haphazardly taped to the wall, it was a plastic, multi-color bilingual sign that hung just inside the walkway from the visitor’s locker room to the players’ bench. My first thought was that it was a sort of tangential tribute to Kenny “The Rat” Linseman, whose 14-year NHL career began and included two stints in Philadelphia.

But probably not. Weird though, because I saw no rodents and no station. Carry on.

********

Speaking of baseball, I had to feel for Philly sports fans last night. Before the game, the fervent Philly faithful learned that Flyers goaltender Antero Niittymaki would be lost for several weeks because of a torn labrum muscle in his hip. Tough loss, as he played well for the Flyers last year, tremendously for Team Finland in the 2006 Winter Olympic Games and marvelously in 2004-05 for the Calder Cup champion Philadelphia Phantoms. Given the age and lack of mobility that is creeping into the Philadelphia backline (Flyers’ defensemen took six minor penalties against Washington on Tuesday night), a top-flight netminder is a virtual must. I like Robert Esche, but I liked the tandem of Esche and Niittymaki much better.

So Niittymaki goes down, and then Esche gets pulled after giving up five goals on just 16 shots in a 6-1 loss to the Capitals. As I was heading downstairs after the game, I paused to watch the last couple of outs of the Phillies game. The Phils entered the day in a dead heat with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League wild card berth, but were trailing the Washington Nationals by a 4-2 count when I began peering in.

Chad Cordero was on for the Nats, there was one out and a guy on second. Cordero whiffed Shane Victorino, but then surrendered a run-scoring single to Chase Utley, pulling the Phils within a run. That brought Ryan Howard (he of the 58 homers and 146 RBI) to the plate as the go-ahead run, and brought Nats manager Frank Robinson to the mound. Not the situation for an intentional walk with first base occupied, and no way Robinson would bring in a lefty to face Howard. Cordero would have to get it done alone and he did, getting the slugging Howard to loft a harmless fly to center to end the game. Combined with a Los Angeles win, that Philadelphia loss left the Phils a game down in the race with five games to go.

Two downtrodden Washington teams had administered bad beats to a pair of higher profile Philly teams on the same night. They’ll get over the preseason loss to the Caps. And Niittymaki will be back at some point. But the defeat to the Nats might well leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Philly sports fans throughout the upcoming winter.

On the plus side, the Brotherly Lovers will have the sublime pleasure of watching the consecutively numbered trio of Jeff Carter (17), Mike Richards (18) and Kyle Calder (19).

So they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.

Cut to the Chase

September 25, 2006

If you were at Sunday’s preseason game between the Washington Capitals and the New Jersey Devils here in Hershey, Pa., you had to feel sorry for the public address announcer. The poor guy was charged with reading the game’s “scratches” just before the 5 p.m. puck drop, and it turned out to be quite the arduous endeavor.

The Caps made life easy on him. After starting training camp with 48 players, Washington had virtually halved that total down to 29 by the start of the Devils game. (Washington has since pared down by another pair, leaving the list at 27.) But New Jersey’s list of scratches seemed to be never-ending. As the roll call went on (and on and on), I wondered: Just how many players did the Devils have in camp this year? And have they cut any of them yet?

The answers, as best as I can tell, are “65” and “no.”

According to the Devils’ training camp media guide, 65 players were invited to camp. This includes unsigned RFA players Brian Gionta, Paul Martin and David Hale. But five games into the preseason schedule, only 35 skaters and three goaltenders have sweatered up and played for New Jersey. So 27 players have been “scratches” for all five tilts to date.

Now it’s possible (maybe even probable) that many of these fine young men have been quietly reassigned to other ports of call around the North American hockey world without any mention of said reassignments making their way into the agate of the newspapers around the North American hockey world. I poked around a bit after I got back to my room last night, and I could not find any note of Devils cuts in any of the usual places. But it sure seems like feather-bedding to keep 27 guys around to drive the bus, refuel the Zamboni, put pucks in a bucket and other mundane chores of the daily hockey routine. I’m sure they’ve lopped off a couple dozen guys by now, it’s just that there’s no note of any transactions (other than the Devils’ purchase of the Trenton ECHL team) from New Jersey in the last 10 days.

I say if you’ve got ’em, play ’em. New Jersey inserted defenseman Olli Malmivaara into the lineup for the first time on Sunday, and it turned out to be a hell of a move. Malmivaara scored a shorthanded goal that proved to be the game-winner in New Jersey’s 3-1 win over Washington. He also gave a solid night’s effort on defense and was designated the game’s No. 1 star for his efforts. Nice hunch by first-year Devils coach Claude Julien.

**********

I spent Saturday at the Virgin Festival (it was an all-day concert, I swear) in Baltimore, a day-long music festival held on the grounds of the Pimlico Racetrack. Tickets were $97.50, prompting one of my show-attending pals to sagely note, “This is one of the best days I’ve ever had at the track. I’m only down a hundred.”

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 people were in attendance. Since it was my first day away from the hockey world in a week or so, I decided to spend the day looking for reminders of the existence of hockey there on the Pimlico grounds. During my 12 hours at the festival, I noted exactly six. Some were more obvious that others.

I saw a guy with a Washington Capitals warmup jacket tied around his waist.

I saw a guy with a Montreal Canadiens hat.

I saw a guy with a Toronto Maple Leafs hat.

I saw an empty half-pint of Canadian Club lying on the ground.

I learned that one of the Hanson brothers is moonlighting as the bass player for The Raconteurs. (If I were as tech-savvy as some of you seem to think I am, I’d put a picture of Jack Lawrence right here so you could see what I mean. But I’m not tech-savvy. To reiterate, I really don’t know why you can’t listen to preseason games on http://www.washingtoncaps.com. I’m merely a writer who occasionally moonlights as a hack color analyst for aforementioned preseason games. I’m keeping the day job.)

Finally, I saw a guy wearing a vintage Harvey’s Wallbangers-era Milwaukee Brewers hat. Which of course made me think of former Portland Pirates and Hershey Bears goaltender Kirk Daubenspeck, a Wisconsin native who could often be seen sporting a well-worn Brewers hat from those days.

It was great to see some evidence of Our Great Game in the insular world of Pimlico on Saturday. I was particularly pleased that I did not see any evidence of Washington’s former Patrick Division foes at Virgin. It made for a thoroughly enjoyable day and evening.

A Pair to Beat a Full House

September 17, 2006

Feels weird not to be driving to Piney Orchard for training camp, but on the first day it usually feels like you don’t even need a car to get there. Is this a great time of year or what? All 30 NHL teams start out with a blank canvas, ripe with possibility, plush with promise. The entire 82-game regular season lays stretched out ahead like a newly paved and painted highway, with the promise of a thrilling chase to the Stanley Cup somewhere at the end of that road.

As for our Caps, they’ve come a long way in a short period of time, but they still have a ways to go.

Three years ago at this time, Butch Cassidy was the head coach, Jaromir Jagr was the marquee player, and postseason berths were an expectation rather than a hope. That season disintegrated like virtually no other in the team’s history, leading to the subsequent dismantling of an overpaid and underachieving bunch.

Fresh transfusions of young blood have been brought in via trades and an abundance of high draft choices since then. A handful of good character players was imported for last season, and the mix resulted in a hard-working team that was fun to watch. And Alex Ovechkin quite simply turned out to be the best thing that has ever happened to this franchise.

Bench boss Glen Hanlon has said that this season will be focused more on achievement, and that was evident even before 49 players took the ice to open the team’s 2006-07 training camp at Ashburn Ice House yesterday. The Caps have fewer players in camp than at any time in recent memory, and that is a reflection of the need to get down to business right away this season. Rather than try to evaluate 60 players – including 40 who will be playing (or not playing) elsewhere in three weeks – the Caps’ focus during this camp will be to thoroughly prepare the 15-17 players they know will be here, and to evaluate a handful of others as they compete for the remaining roster spots.

There are two especially intriguing things to keep an eye on as camp unfolds. Kris Beech is being given a shot at claiming the No. 2 center’s spot left vacant by Jeff Halpern’s offseason departure, and Ben Clymer is being asked to return to his natural position as a defenseman after more than five years of playing on the wing.

Remember last season when the Caps broke camp with a second line of Andrew Cassels flanked by Jeff Friesen and Petr Sykora? It looked fine on paper in early October, but soon unraveled like a cheap sweater. On the other hand, kudos to Hanlon and the Caps for cobbling together a second line of Matt Pettinger, Halpern and Brian Willsie on the fly. That trio combined for 50 goals, fewer than you’d hope to get from a second line, but decent production given the circumstances.

With Alexander Semin and Richard Zednik expected to be manning the flanks of this year’s second unit, a capable pivot is needed to center for them. It’s time for the 25-year-old Beech to prove that he can handle such a role in the NHL. Beech has nothing left to prove in the AHL. He played in 58 regular season contests in the AHL last season, totaling 26 goals and 64 points. In helping the Hershey Bears to their ninth Calder Cup championship, Beech finished tied for fourth in the circuit in playoff scoring. He racked up 14 goals and 28 points in 21 postseason tilts.

So Beech finished with 40 goals, 92 points and 84 PIM in 79 games. That’s a good season’s work by any standard, especially considering that he ratcheted up his production when it mattered the most. From what I saw of him last season, he has good vision, distributes the puck well, shoots the puck well, and is a capable player away from the puck. He was one of Hershey’s best players, night in and night out, during the 21-game march to the Calder last spring.

Now it’s a matter of moving up and doing it at the next level. He doesn’t need another 90-point season to be a success in the District this season: a shade more than half of that would probably please most. Beech believes he can do it, but it’s up to him to make believers of Hanlon and George McPhee. Beech is definitely a guy whose performance could be a key for the Caps this season, one way or another.

Another guy you want to watch is Clymer. For the first time on more than 20 seasons, Washington was nicked for 300 goals against in 2005-06. The goaltending was often heroic, but the defense was spotty. Although the blueline matured and improved as the season wore on, night-to-night depth was a bit of a problem. Jamie Heward, Bryan Muir, Shaone Morrisonn and Steve Eminger all averaged better than 20 minutes a night. But on most nights, two from the group of Mathieu Biron, Ivan Majesky and Nolan Yonkman were in the lineup. Those three were hard-pressed to deliver as many as a dozen decent minutes on any given night, meaning that some or all of the aforementioned quartet would see its minutes climb to the mid-to-upper-20s, a level at which those players then started getting exposed.

The July 1 addition of Brian Pothier gives the Caps a fifth defenseman capable of playing 18-22 capable minutes a night. But the weeks since the Pothier signing failed to produce a sixth such blueliner, at least until Hanlon’s summer brainstorm nominated Clymer for the job.

I happen to think rookie Mike Green might end up being the best of the bunch, but I also firmly believe you need more than six or seven defensemen you can trust on a nightly basis, even if a few of them are parked in Hershey for most of the season. When was the last time a team, any NHL team, made it through a season without at least one regular blueliner going down for a few weeks with an injury?

If the Clymer experiment is successful, the Caps suddenly have a bit more depth on defense. Green can be eased in without as much pressure, and the six guys getting sweaters every night can shoulder the workload evenly, without anyone being forced to play upwards of 25 minutes a night.

Clymer is a very good athlete, and a guy who possesses a lot of the things you look for in a modern NHL defenseman. He’s smart, mobile, quick, passes well, and can play with some snarl when necessary. He also averaged 19:37 as a rookie defenseman in the NHL for one of the worst teams in the league as a fresh-faced 21-year-old. I believe a more grizzled and battle-tested Clymer can handle the task.

Regardless of what happens with Beech and Clymer, the fun will be in the finding out. School has started.

I’ll leave you with a bit of a treatise from Jamie Heward, a guy who’s very adept at filling tape recorders and a guy who I believe will make a pretty good coach somewhere, someday. I asked Heward about blueline experience, something the Caps are lacking. Here’s what he had to say:

“I don’t think you can ever underestimate experience. I think it adds a certain characteristic to your team that you can’t put a price on. It’s just one of those things that you need. But on the other hand, you need some youthful exuberance too. You need the young guys to come in and be aggressive and be full of energy every night and play hard. Everybody is going to make their mistakes but if you make them at high energy and because you are working as hard as you possibly can, then we will accept them and move on and get better as a team.

“I just think that if we take everything that we did last year and we learn and grow and play more as a defensive unit, everybody playing 18-20 minutes a night, playing high energy all the time and not getting too tired because they’re playing a ton of minutes, I think that is going to help us. Take a look around the league and look at a team like Nashville, how many superstars did they have back on their defense? When you look at how they played as a team and how they played as partners with their [forward] lines they were playing with, I think that is more important than having great individuals back there.

“I think we can have a good training camp, work on it in preseason and hopefully gel as a good unit playing with our lines. Everybody says there is pressure on us to defend, but I’ll tell you what. If we can get the puck up to our forwards and let them start skating, it will make our job a lot easier. We’ll put the pressure on the forwards. We’ll get the puck up to them and then they’ve got to score. We’ll take pressure off ourselves by getting the puck up to those guys and letting them do their thing.”

Ride Captain Ride

September 15, 2006

Upon your mystery ship. Be amazed at the friends you have here on your trip.

You might prefer Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home” as your captain song of choice, and it’s a fine one at that. Me, I’m opting for a medley of Blues Image’s only hit, a Top 10 smash from the spring of 1970.

Captain Chris Clark and his Capital cohorts will embark upon their own 82-game voyage through the 2006-07 regular season in less than three weeks. Between now and then, Clark and the Caps will skate, practice, drill and otherwise occupy themselves at the team’s temporary practice home in Ashburn, Va. They’ll also go out on six preseason mini-expeditions, starting on Wednesday against Tampa Bay at Verizon Center.

The Capitals named Clark the 13th captain in the club’s history on Wednesday. I think it’s a fine choice.

From the time he arrived in Washington last summer, Clark has been captain material. I’m a packrat, and hard drives being so darned spacious these days, I don’t have to make choices about what to keep. I keep virtually everything. Here’s an excerpt from a preseason postgame (got that?) notebook I scrawled after the Caps suffered a sound 4-0 beating at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres on Sept. 21 of last year:

Won’t Back Down – Chris Clark stands 6-foot-0 and weighs 200 pounds. Sabres’ left wing Andrew Peters, who has admitted to using steroids to bulk up from 224 to 247 pounds in the summer of 2003, is listed at 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds. But anyone who has seen Clark play knows that his motor is always running, he won’t back down from anyone and he is a good teammate.

Midway through the third period, Clark displayed those qualities for the home folks at MCI Center. Peters plowed the Capitals’ Miroslav Zalesak into the boards from behind, and then leaned his bulky frame down on the prone winger just for good measure.

Seconds later, Clark hopped over the boards and went right after Peters, challenging him and getting the better of the Buffalo bully in a bout at the Sabres’ blueline. Clark incurred a minor for instigating, a major for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct for his efforts.

His deeds did not go unnoticed in the press box or on the Caps’ bench. After the game, Washington coach Glen Hanlon made a point of citing Clark’s actions.

“The key in the whole game for me,” said Hanlon, “and I don’t want it to go unnoticed, was what Chris Clark did. Part of our thing here is we have young players and we are building on physical play and team spirit and team unity. That’s one of his strengths. He went and challenged one of the toughest guys in the league. It really wasn’t his job, he just went and did it. It made it worth the drive from my Piney Orchard home.”

The fight with Clark was Peters’ second of the night; he tangled with Washington’s Stephen Peat at 3:46 of the second period.

A few things stand out here.

First, it was a preseason game. And it was over, 4-0 for the other guys. It wasn’t Alex Ovechkin who got ragdolled. It wasn’t Mike Green, or Chris Bourque or Jeff Schultz or one of the Caps’ other high profile prospects. It wasn’t Dainius Zubrus, or Jeff Halpern or Olie Kolzig or one of Washington’s key NHL players. It was Miroslav Zalesak, a low-level summer free agent pickup, a longshot to crack the roster, and a guy Clark – himself a newcomer to the organization – barely knew.

None of that mattered. What did matter was that Zalasak’s sweater was the same color as Clark’s, and that kind of activity wasn’t going to be tolerated or accepted. That’s old time hockey. Like Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper and Toe Blake. And that’s the kind of guy you want wearing the “C” on your team’s sweater.

Clark is not a rah-rah guy, and he will never be mistaken for Mark Messier. But he has passion and he plays with passion. His team might be down 5-1 in the first or up by a goal in the last minute of the third, but you’ll never be able to tell which it is by watching him on the ice. Watch him light up and get animated when he’s talking about something he is really passionate about – his family, his parents, the Red Sox, an errant Tim Wakefield knuckleball, the Hartford Whalers, or being present at the induction ceremony when Cam Neely was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall. He has that passion, that fire, particularly when he is on the ice.

He grew up with the Calgary Flames, playing on a Calder Cup champion team at Saint John of the AHL in 2000-01 and moving all the way on to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals with the Flames in 2004. He has been where the Caps hope to be going, and can help show them the way.

Like almost every player who is traded for the first time, it took Clark a while to get over the shock of being sent from Calgary to Washington last summer.

“It’s tough,” he admits. “Guys go to different teams and you get different outcomes. You can go to a different team and all of a sudden, you’re not playing. But I’ve been fortunate. I come to a new team and things have stepped up. It was greener on the other side of the fence, I guess for me. This has been a great organization for myself. Now we want to take the personal out of it and step towards hockey and team and getting everybody going and making this a successful year. When we start doing that we’ll have the fans behind us and we’ll have everybody in this town behind us.”

He’s got a lot of people behind him already. Sail on, Sailor.

He’s Back

September 13, 2006

Almost forgot. Alex Semin, in the house. No visa woes, no military fatigues. He’s in the District.

I swear it.

Poile Prevented Pottersville

September 13, 2006

I spent last weekend camping and canoeing on the Pokomoke River, but did not want to let an important Capitals anniversary slip by without mention. On Sept. 9, 1982, Washington general manager David Poile – at 33, the youngest GM in NHL history and less than two weeks into his tenure – made what is certainly the best trade in franchise history and one of the best ever in the NHL.

Poile sent quality (defenseman Rick Green and center and team captain Ryan Walter) to Montreal for quality and quantity: defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, center Doug Jarvis and winger Craig Laughlin. It’s not that the deal propelled the Caps to any Cup championships. It’s not that the guys the Caps got were great and the guys they gave up were stiffs. It’s simply that the deal saved the franchise.

Legend has it that when Poile was negotiating his own contract with former Caps owner Abe Pollin, days earlier the young GM insisted on a three-year deal, rather than the one-year pact that was being offered. Pollin relented in the end, figuring if things did not turn around in a year the franchise and Poile’s contract would someone else’s problem in some other North American city.

After eight straight losing seasons and dwindling attendance, the Capitals were on the verge of leaving town. A group of concerned fans had formed the “Save the Caps” committee. More local newspaper ink was devoted to the Caps’ plight that summer than is used during the entire regular season these days. The Capitals teetered all summer, then Pollin brought in team president Dick Patrick, who in turn hired Poile. Fourteen consecutive playoff appearances followed.

But what would possess Montreal to make such a deal?

The Habs were only three years removed from the last of their four consecutive Stanley Cup titles in the mid-1970s, but patience has a different definition up north. While the Caps had endured all eight seasons of their existence without so much as a single playoff contest, the Habs had claimed a phenomenal total of 16 Stanley Cups over the previous 30 seasons. Expectations and stakes were much higher in the hockey hotbed to the north.

The Caps sputtered to a 26-41-13 mark in 1981-82, finishing last for the third consecutive season and the sixth time in eight years. Montreal finished 46-17-17, earning an eighth straight division title and eclipsing the 100-point barrier for the eighth straight season. But after the Habs were bounced in the division semi-finals of the 1982 playoffs, Montreal general manager Irving Grundman began to get antsy. He had been trying without success to escape the long shadows of his predecessors.

Frank Selke (18 years) and Sam Pollock (14 years) had presided in the Habs’ GM chair during the team’s glory years. Grundman grabbed the reins in 1978-79 when Pollock stepped down. Pollock’s name is etched on the Cup nine times as the team’s general manager; Grundman is listed as the team’s “managing director” for the ’78-79 Cup champs.

Pollock’s specialty was dealing away aging vets to poor NHL clubs in exchange for what would almost invariably turn out to be top draft choices. In 1976, he obtained the Colorado Rockies’ first-round pick in the 1980 NHL draft, which turned out to be the first choice overall. With Grundman at the switch and the 1980 draft being held in Montreal, the Habs passed on flamboyant Denis Savard, a scoring star with the Montreal Juniors of the QMJHL. Instead. Grundman opted for Western League center Doug Wickenheiser. The locals were not pleased with the choice, or with Grundman.

By the end of the 1981-82 season, Savard had played in an NHL All-Star Game and had registered a 119-point sophomore season. Wickenheiser was still struggling to establish himself. Having squandered one of Pollock’s prescient picks and having seen the Habs exit the playoffs early three years in a row after four straight Cup titles, Grundman’s collar was feeling a bit tight in the summer of 1982.

The 1981-82 Caps had scored a franchise record 319 goals. Dennis Maruk set club records that still stand with 60 goals and 136 assists that season. Washington boasted five 30-goal scorers. But without goaltending and defense, the Caps were confined to the cellar. With the team’s status uncertain, the Capitals had done nothing to address their shortcomings over the summer. Training camp was days away when Poile and Grundman struck their fateful deal.

In Green and Walter, Washington was surrendering two of its best players. Green was the first overall choice in the 1976 NHL Draft, while Walter was selected second overall in 1978. At the time of the deal, Green was 26 and Walter 24 years old. Although his career had been beset by some nagging injuries, Green was Washington’s top defenseman, and he often played more than 30 minutes a night. Walter had been named the Caps’ captain at the start of the 1979-80 season. At 21, he was the youngest captain in NHL history at the time.

Walter was a personal favorite of Pollin’s, but Poile was well aware that Grundman also coveted the talented young center. Grundman and the Habs also believed that Langway’s career would be cut short because of dried blood in the knee that had weakened the muscle in his left leg.

Langway was 25 at the time of the deal, and was coming off a plus-66 season. The 27-year-old Engblom was even better at plus-78. Jarvis was also 27 at the time of the deal, a checking line center coming off a 20-goal season in which he was also plus-34. One of the league’s top faceoff men, Jarvis filled a glaring need for the Caps in that department. The durable pivot was also in the midst of what remains the longest iron-man streak in league history; he played in 964 consecutive games.

Laughlin was 10 days shy of his 25th birthday when the deal was made. After four seasons at Clarkson College and a season and a half with the AHL’s Montreal Voyageurs, Laughlin had scored 12 goals in just 36 games as a rookie with Montreal in 1981-82.

You probably know the rest. The Caps trimmed their goals against by more than half a tally a game in ’82-83, earning their first-ever playoff berth in the process. Langway became the first Washington player to win a major NHL award (Norris Trophy) in 1982-83, and the first U.S.-trained player to win the Norris. He won the trophy again the following season and quickly became the face of the Capitals, one of the NHL’s most successful regular season teams throughout the remainder of the decade.

Poile later spun Engblom into Larry Murphy; Murphy and Langway both went on to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Jarvis won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward in 1984, and remains the only Capital ever to win the award. Laughlin enjoyed several solid seasons in Washington and has gone on to enjoy a lengthy career as the color analyst on the team’s television broadcasts.

More than anything else, the deal brought stability to the district. The team had employed three general managers and eight head coaches over its first eight seasons, but the duo of Poile and Bryan Murray stayed in place throughout the remainder of the decade.

Up north, the 1982-83 season was Grundman’s last with the Canadiens. He was later elected to the city council in Montreal, but had to resign in disgrace after admitting that he accepted a bribe to change a zoning bylaw. Grundman pled guilty and received 23 months of community service and a $50,000 fine. Green and Walter both stuck around long enough to win a Cup with the Habs in 1986.

It’s not a stretch to say that David Poile’s presence in Washington was as important and well timed as that of George Bailey in Bedford Falls. No Poile, no Capitals.

***********

Moving along, it should be interesting to see the reaction around the league to the Ryan Kesler offer sheet. The “gentleman’s agreement” among NHL GMs to not poach other teams’ RFAs was conveniently ignored by Philadelphia’s Bob Clarke, and why not? With Flyers captain Keith Primeau apparently set to retire and training camp about to start, Clarke has a hole to fill.

The 22-year-old Kesler totaled 10 goals and 23 points for Vancouver in 2005-06, his first full season in the league. The Canucks were not expected to pay him much more than his qualifying offer of $564,000, while Kesler was said to be looking for a bump over his $772,000 salary of a year ago.

Vancouver’s first pick (23rd overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Kesler played collegiate hockey with Washington’s Dave Steckel at Ohio State in 2002-03. The Canucks have a week to match Philadelphia’s generous offer, and not a lot of salary cap room with which to do so. If they choose not to match, they will receive a second round draft choice from Philadelphia. That’s not much to show for a first round pick and all the time and money you’ve invested in him along the way.

By the way, how interesting is it than no one has tried this with the Devils’ trio of unsigned RFAs, Brian Gionta, Paul Martin and David Hale? It would cost significantly more (first, second and third round picks) to sign Gionta to an offer sheet of say, $3.9 million. And you’d have to get Gionta to sign it, too. If he did and the Devils did not match, you’d have a 48-goal scorer. What are the odds of one of those three compensatory draft choices developing into a 48-goal scorer? Not very good.

If Gionta signed and the Devils did match, you’d put New Jersey right up against the salary cap, making it almost impossible for the team to sign Martin and/or Hale. You could then swoop in and sign one or both of them.

I’d be surprised if one or more of New Jersey’s divisional rivals hasn’t at least entertained such fiendishly diabolical (or diabolically fiendish?) thoughts. Hurting one of the best teams in your division on and off the ice while helping yourself on and off the ice is win-win. But people – including NHL GMs – fear and respect New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Dave Nonis? Not so much, apparently.

Thin Blue Line?

September 8, 2006

The Thin Blue Line is the title of a 1988 documentary about a wrongly convicted man in Texas. And you thought it was the title of the video of the Washington Capitals’ upcoming 2006-07 season.

Yeah, I know. They make those videos after the season. But you wouldn’t know that from the volume of email and podcast queries I’ve received on the subject over the summer. Folks out there are generally worried about the Caps’ blue line corps. I’ll confess to being among them, though perhaps not to the same degree.

Four years ago, the Caps featured a mostly veteran group of defensemen. When Washington opened the 2002-03 season at MCI Center against Nashville on Oct. 11, it dressed a core group of four defensemen – Calle Johansson, Sergei Gonchar, Ken Klee and Brendan Witt – who had been together on the Caps’ roster since 1995-96, a claim none of the other 29 teams in the league could make at the time. Those four defenders brought a combined 2,462 games worth of NHL experience into that season. J-F Fortin (36 games) and Steve Eminger (none) were the other two defensemen dressed for the Caps that night.

The Caps finished second in the Southeast Division that season, but were bounced from the playoffs in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Johansson and Klee did not return in 2003-04, marking the beginning of the changing of the (rear)guard in the District.

For what it’s worth, the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup that season. Their six most frequently used defensemen came into that season with a whopping 4,699 games worth of NHL experience. That figure is very much an anomaly; teams have before and since won Cups with far less blueline experience.

No one expects the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this season, but earning a playoff spot seems to be a common and attainable goal if you talk to the players and the brass. Can it be done with the currently assembled defense? The short answer is yes.

The Nashville Predators made the playoffs last season with six defensemen who began the season with just 1,087 NHL games to their credit, though they did add Witt in a late-season trade with the Caps. The San Jose Sharks’ six most frequently used defensemen totaled 1,042 games heading into the 2005-06 campaign. They made the playoffs and advanced to the second round.

Washington’s top six from last season came in with a combined 1,235 games played in the league. This season, the Caps figure to come in somewhere between 1,000 and 1,365 NHL games, depending on whether Ben Clymer, drafted as a defenseman in 1997 but later converted to wing, skates up front or in the back for the Caps this season.

Nashville and San Jose each had a pair of first-rounders among its six defensemen; with Jamie Heward, Shaone Morrisonn, Steve Eminger and Mike Green the Caps could conceivably have as many as four. Pedigree can’t hurt.

Now for a bit of local and historical perspective. The Capitals opened the 1981-82 season on Oct. 7, 1981 at Buffalo. The six defensemen who earned opening night sweaters that season were Rick Green (312 games worth of NHL experience), Pat Ribble (306), Terry Murray (228), Paul MacKinnon (77), Jim McTaggart (52) and Greg Theberge (1). That’s a total of just 976 games worth of NHL experience.

The results weren’t pretty that season. The Caps missed the playoffs for an eighth straight season, posting a 26-41-13 record. Washington surrendered 338 goals, tied for the most it had allowed since its second season in the league, 1975-76.

Up on Long Island, where the New York Islanders were preparing to win a third straight Stanley Cup title, the Isles iced a six-man defensive unit of Denis Potvin, Mike McEwen, ex-Cap Gord Lane, Stefan Persson, Dave Langevin and Ken Morrow. That sixsome totaled 1,841 games worth of NHL experience going into that season, nearly twice the total of the Capitals’ half-dozen defensemen.

Washington made some moves prior to the next season, most notably the deal with the Canadiens that brought in blueliners Rod Langway and Brian Engblom. With Engblom (316), Langway (268), Randy Holt (299), Darren Veitch (126), Lee Norwood (39) and Scott Stevens (0) in the lineup for the season opener against the Rangers on Oct. 6, 1982, the Caps had marked a modest increase to 1,048 games worth of blueline experience.

When the ’82-83 season was in the books, the Caps had cut their goals against by 55 – more than half a goal a game – to a more respectable 283. They also made the playoffs for the first time in their existence. That Caps defense counted two first-rounders – Veitch and Stevens – among its ranks.

This year’s bunch figures to start the season somewhere in the same range of experience as that 1982-83 team. But the ’06-07 Caps have two things the ’82-83 team did not have, namely Alex Ovechkin and Olie Kolzig.

On paper, yes. Thin blue line. Could look a little thinner or a little thicker 82 games from now, and maybe another name or names will be added to the mix between now and then, too. Washington’s defense could be good enough to get the team into the playoffs, and it could be bad enough to be the reason why it misses the playoffs. The fun will be in the finding out.

Random cultural convergence: The best song ever with the words “blue” and “line” in the title is Let’s Active’s “Blue Line.” Better known for having produced many fine records over the last two decades, Mitch Easter was the frontman of the criminally underappreciated trio.


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