A Pair to Beat a Full House

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.”

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