Looking at Things a Bit Differently

Being a head coach in the NHL is not an easy job. No matter what you do, you’re going to have thousands who think you should have done something different. Fans love to focus on line combinations, even in the preseason. Plenty of media and message board types fuel this fire with reports of who is playing with whom and opinions on the same. After practice today, Caps coach Glen Hanlon chatted with the media and cracked wise about this, but also gave a great deal of insight into what the Caps are looking for and what positions are up for grabs this fall. You might be a little surprised at some of what he said.

A question was asked about his mindset on the team’s top two lines going into camp. Here’s what he said:

“We’ve got four guys who, where they are in their careers and the money they are making financially, they are a lock to take four of the top six spots. Everyone is waiting with anticipation to see who plays with whom, but I don’t think they’re each going to play with the same person for 82 games. I’ve said this all along. When you’re Scotty Bowman, you put [Sergei] Fedorov on defense and you’re a genius. Now, when you’re Glen Hanlon if you don’t play the [right] guys the very first day of training camp for the next six months all together, you’re a nitwit.

“I know what we need to do and I know where we’re going. We have things that we’re looking for. We’ll play [Alex Ovechkin] a bit with [Viktor Kozlov] and then we’ll play Nylander with Ovechkin. And we’ll see how they work. Our league is so difficult because of injuries and fatigue. It’s nice to have four guys that are interchangeable. The test for us and the test for the players is there are a half-dozen skill guys fighting for two spots.

“We always know Clarkie can play with Ovie and Kozzie. We know that. We don’t have to experiment with that. We could go these whole seven games here and try 10 different people on that wing, and at the end of it when we go into that first game and we’re not comfortable with the success of someone, we’ll just pop Clarkie in there. It’s easy. Then we’ll just find someone to get into that other spot.

“The other thing is that we have such a great captain. You’ve got a guy who has scored 30 goals and he has played with Ovie all the time. If you say, ‘Look, in training camp, you’re not going to play with him.’ He’s like, ‘So, where do you want me to play? What do you want me to do?’ That makes it easy. It gives us a month to have a tryout for those spots.”

If you’re reading between the same lines I am, there are six (or so) players battling for the right wing slots on the top two lines. If only one guy steps forward to take a spot, then Clark can be slotted back up on Ovie’s right. Nylander is likely to spend some time skating with both Ovie and Semin, as is Kozlov. Which means Nicklas Backstrom could be eased into the mix as the third-line center. Makes sense when you remember that he skated with Matt Pettinger and Chris Clark in the scrimmage today. Except Backstrom will be playing with two different players in Carolina tomorrow.

Like Hanlon says, don’t try to make too much sense of all this at this stage. And really, I’m not. I’m just trying to point out exactly why you shouldn’t make too much of this at this stage.

Another theme that much of the media has yet to catch onto is this: this season is not about the three big-name free agents the Caps imported over the summer. If the Caps are to improve and perhaps even advance to the playoffs in 2007-08, the reasons will be far more diverse and complex than the additions of Nylander, Kozlov and defenseman Tom Poti.

“We just can’t focus on the three guys,” reminds Hanlon, speaking specifically about Poti in relation to the holdover defensemen. “Our returning group has to elevate themselves to get themselves into top four minutes type of play. They have played top four minutes but now [they’ll be expected to play] top four minutes for a successful hockey team. There’s one thing playing top four development minutes, where you’re getting it for development reasons and almost by default. Now it’s to come in and say, ‘Okay, if I played 22 minutes [a night] last year, I’ve got to play like somebody off of Anaheim plays or somebody off of Detroit plays. And that’s the challenge for us.”

Hanlon believes the team’s young defenders will be able to rise to this challenge because they’ve been through a few training camps and a few NHL seasons now.

“After the three [years] you’re not as nervous as you were,” he says. “You’re not looking over your shoulder after every mistake thinking that you’re going to get sent to Hershey. Now you get to a point where you’re coming [along] and they’ve got to put some sort of a stamp on what their career is going to be all about. It’s time for them to do that.

“And they’re all pretty close [in age] on our defense. I don’t know their exact ages, but Emmy, Mo and Juice – those three guys come right to mind. Those are the guys who should be in that mindset. And they way they’ve come to camp, the condition that they’re in, how they’ve practiced here the first couple of days says a lot. That’s what they want, too.”

A question was then asked about how much performance in the preseason games matters vs. performance in practice, and how jobs get earned in camp.

“I think it’s weighted heavily this year,” says the Caps coach. “I think it switches. If we’re going to talk as freely as we are about making the playoffs, I don’t think you say someone has had a really bad camp and we’re going to give them that sixth [defense] spot. I think you have to say if someone is really on a roll here and they’re playing well and they’re in the top six, then we play them.

“Now with saying that, if it is somebody that is not anywhere near our radar on making the hockey team, I don’t see how you can take a chance on having somebody who wasn’t even a top player in the American Hockey League and all of a sudden he has a good week, I don’t think we’re going to be foolish enough just to give him a spot. We’re going to say, ‘Way to go, way to work, and you’ve moved up the ladder in the Hershey situation.’ I think the people know here who has a legitimate shot and who doesn’t.”

It’s been said before, but Hanlon plans to leave the managing to McPhee and the coaching to himself.

“The great thing about our relationship with George and I,” begins Hanlon, “is that I really don’t want and have a lot of say on [personnel]. George really does a good job of evaluating and I just feel my strength is coaching the hockey team. I’m not saying it’s not partly my responsibility, because we talk about it and who it is. But really the evaluators do it and our pro scouts do it. They take a look and they have a long-term plan, so they know. It’s a difficult question to answer, but really the fact of the matter is that there are a handful of guys who come here that have the jobs and there are a handful of guys who fight for the remaining spots. And the rest of them bide their time.”

What about first-round choice Karl Alzner? Is it really possible that such a young kid could make the team?

“I think we proved that with Steve Eminger and Shaone Morrisonn,” says Hanlon. “A lot of these guys had opportunities to play where perhaps there were better veterans at the time and we allowed them to play.

“They better play pretty darned good, let’s put it that way. Like really good. Like really, really good. If Karl comes tomorrow and he controls the game or whatever games he ends up playing here – I don’t know how many it’s going to be, it’s all up to him – or [Francois] Bouchard scores three goals, we’re not going to send them back. But they better do it the rest of the camp. Your work is cut out for you. History has a way of repeating itself. There are very few defensemen who come in at 18 or 19 years old and stay and make an impact. We don’t want to bust anybody’s dream or burst anyone’s bubble. Things happen, but you’ve got to make an impact. It’s hard. These guys are big and they’re good. I haven’t learned much, but I’ve learned to not get excited about the first two days and not to get discouraged. That’s about where I’m at.”

That’s where we’re all at now, two days into camp. But thanks to Hanlon’s frank answers, we’ve all got a little better idea of what to look for over the next three weeks.

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5 Comments on “Looking at Things a Bit Differently”

  1. Great insight from both you and the coach. Clark is indeed a nice luxury. Sort of like a poor man’s Holmstrom in terms of skills and versatility–fits from lines 1-4 as needed, and makes a difference no matter where he’s slotted.

  2. Vlad Says:

    Wow! This is really an eye-opening piece as to how Hanlon’s mind works. Many, many thanks!

    The major question that comes to my mind after reading this — how does Backstrom fit into all this? If, as you say, 6 guys are battling for 2 RW spots, and Backstrom has a solid camp as a center, would the Caps consider creating a third scoring line with Backstrom in the middle, or let him adjust to the NHL on the wing? Or is Backstrom still more likely, if he plays well, to slide Kozlov over to RW, leaving 1 spot for the gang? It would be interesting to hear your current perception of Backstrom’s trajectory.

    Anyway, great, great article..

  3. Jan Says:

    Can Backstrom go back and forth to Hershey in safety? Can he be claimed?

  4. pga3 Says:

    Great stuff in this post. Not just seeing how Hanlon’s mind works, but the heightened expectations Hanlon now has of the players. He states that some young players in the past had the opportunity to play, even though there might have been a better veteran at the time. Now a player has got to play “Like really, really good” to stay, and he has to do that during the entire camp. Shows the improved personnel and the new expectations from Hanlon.

  5. shaggy Says:

    Great, great stuff – where you been hiding this? 😉 Seriously, Hanlon is a great read, with all his candor.
    My thought is: do all really good teams start their ascent the way the Caps are now? The 3 years of developing, rebuilding, and overall suckitude, traded suddenly for playoff hopes and even more, after some front office financing of course. I hope this is the start of something great – the whole vibe is feeling really positive this season.

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