Roster decisions are never easy for any coach in any sport at any level. Telling a player he didn’t make the team is a tough thing to do, and it never gets easier. For Caps coach Glen Hanlon, the time is drawing near where his team must settle it’s opening night roster, and he will be faced with the unpleasant task of telling a handful of players that they’re headed for Hershey, or elsewhere. Players who need to clear waivers for re-assignment purposes must be placed on waivers by noon on Monday, Oct. 1. The team’s 23-man opening night roster must be set and turned into the league office by 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2.
“It’s hard,” Hanlon admitted prior to Wednesday’s 2-1 preseason loss at Philadelphia. “It’s hard to tell someone at 18 that they’re going back to junior. And it’s hard to tell someone at 21 that they’re going to Hershey. It’s always hard to give someone bad news and it just gets harder and harder the closer you get to that final cut-off date and the older they are and the more kids they have in school. All of these things make this next week or so not something that you look forward to.”
With only two games remaining in the preseason (there were still three when I spoke with Hanlon yesterday), there are still 18 forwards and 10 defensemen vying for jobs. Many jobs are already set in stone, but all we really know is this: those 28 players will have to shrink to 21 (plus the two goaltenders, who are already set). There could be 13 forwards and eight defensemen, or there could be 14 forwards and seven defensemen. Trades could also be a factor.
“This is maybe a question that lends itself more towards George’s area,” says Hanlon. “But I would think we’ll have a conversation and I think we’ll keep the 21 best assets. I don’t think you play them all by position. At the end of this, the 23rd spot could be a forward or a defenseman. I think it’s whoever has played better. Maybe age will become a factor in terms of if one was 31 and was your 23rd player and one was 24, you’d likely try to factor that in. I think there are a lot of things we’ll take a look at before this is over. I think the bottom line on all of this is that our organization is improving.”
The organization is improving, as evidenced by the fact that several members of the 2006 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears and the 2007 Bears team that advanced to the Cup finals are among those competing for jobs. Forwards Chris Bourque, Tomas Fleischmann, Jakub Klepis and Dave Steckel and defensemen Mike Green and Jeff Schultz all played for both of those Bears playoff teams, and all are among the remaining combatants for jobs in Washington this fall.
“The easiest way of saying it is that we have three games left here,” says Hanlon. “Everyone who is fighting for a position will likely play all three games. At the end of those games we’ll take a look at the players that we’re keeping a close eye on and we’ll keep the 12 best forwards; we can find a way to arrange them. The other couple of forwards and defenseman or two defensemen and one forward, we’ll keep and we’ll make those decisions for the long-term success of the team.”
The last statement could offer a window into Washington’s thinking. It’s easy to discern that the forwards who did not play in Phily last night will clearly be on the opening night roster. The same can be said for defensemen Tom Poti and Brian Pothier. The other defensemen left back were Mike Green and Jeff Schultz. Their absence from last night’s lineup might mean they’ve secured spots, too.
Moving captain Chris Clark from the right side of a line with Alex Ovechkin to the right side of what would be a checking unit with Boyd Gordon and Matt Pettinger could create a spot for Tomas Fleischmann among the team’s top six forwards. Hanlon also knows he can always slide Clark back into his old slot with Ovechkin, possibly creating a slot for a guy like Steckel on the Gordon line. There are also scenarios under which both Fleischmann and Steckel would make the roster.
It is evident that Hanlon is attaching a lot of emphasis, effort and importance on forming a strong checking line this season, and that he doesn’t at all see Clark’s possible move as a demotion of any sort. In fact, he sees it the opposite way.
“With Clarkie, it seems natural to say ‘move down,'” Hanlon admits. “We don’t look at it as moving down. I look at it as giving him more responsibility and the responsibility of being the leader of a line that is going to set some good habits and some good systems and to be able to play real quality minutes every single night.
“Those types of players, there has to be consistency in their game. We find that we’re finally happy with that type of group. We think it’s real important. We use the example of Anaheim, with [Travis] Moen and [Sami] Pahlsson and [Rob] Niedermayer, we think they played a large part in that hockey club winning the Stanley Cup. If that’s the case, we think it’s a movement up.”
Getting down to 21 skaters will be hard enough, but then Hanlon will have to decide on a game-by-game basis which of the 18 skaters will get a sweater. The Caps figure to have some quality depth here in D.C., nevermind Hershey.
“The way it looks now,” Hanlon begins, “we’ve got enough players remaining that I’ll have a lot of NHL experience. In the past we’ve had players on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd spots who have been call-up players from the American League who have had previous American League experience. It’s going to be real tough times here in the next week to figure out the last couple of spots. We like to think that that’s a sign of success of our hockey team and how it’s been structured here in the last couple of years.”
Nearly two weeks into training camp and with only two preseason games remaining, Hanlon likes what he’s seeing on the ice and says only a few decisions remain.
“We have a fairly good idea of what we’re going to do,” he says. “We seem fairly structured now with our penalty kill groups. We like where we are with our power play groups; they’re set. We kind of know where our defense partners are. These last games here, we’re just trying to come down to a couple of decisions. I don’t think you ever get to a point in time during the season where all your players are healthy and everything is just picture perfect.”