The Washington Capitals conducted their annual media day Tuesday at Kettler Iceplex in preparation for Friday night’s NHL regular season opener in Atlanta against the Thrashers (730pm on CSN). The Caps will then come home for a Saturday night tilt versus the New Jersey Devils at the Verizon Center (7pm on CSN). For the organization, and especially the players, this will be a chance to once again play some real games and suppress, at least for now, much of the talk and questions surrounding last year’s playoff disappointment.
“I think we are excited and everybody can’t wait for the season to start because it was a long preseason and long summer for us,” said superstar Alexander Ovechkin about getting back on the ice for real NHL games.
General Manager George McPhee feels like his team is well positioned to start the 2010-11 season.
“We’ve had a terrific camp, one of the better ones we’ve had, and we came through it without any injuries. We got a great look at the players we have and I think we are positioned to have a really good year again. It’s time to get it going. The summer really isn’t much fun pushing paper around in an office. When you have players to watch in practice, games to watch, that’s really why we are here,” said the man who has been the Caps GM since June of 1997.
For McPhee, Tuesday was roster cutdown day and forwards Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Gordon, and Jay Beagle along with defenseman Brian Fahey were assigned to Hershey, with both Gordon and Fahey needing to clear waivers first, meaning that 2009 1st round draft choice Marcus Johansson made the club along with 29 year old journeyman, Matt Hendricks. Johansson and Hendricks both had attributes that gave them the nod over the other cuts, with the young Swedish center nosing out the 22 year old Perreault for the third line center slot.
“We were looking at different spots. It might have been different had we been looking at a #2 center. I think Matty, at his stage right now, probably has more offensive upside, but Marcus has got more defensive upside and with the skating and just coming from Sweden where they preach defense all of the time. It is a really tough call and who knows how it would have went say had Matty had to clear waivers? In today’s salary cap world things happen. We know that they’re both great players and will be playing for the Washington Capitals for a lot of years,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the decision to keep the 19 year old Johansson over Perreault.
“He’s an exceptional player and I love the way he thinks the game, competes, and skates. I really think he can make us a better team. The nice thing is our center ice is going to be in good shape for a long time with the players we have here now and the players in the system. It might be as deep as its ever been and as good as its ever been,” added McPhee on Johansson and the depth the team is amassing at the pivot position, which includes 2010 first round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is playing in the top Russian league, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), this season.
When Johansson was drafted back in 2009, an NHL scout told me that the Caps made a good selection and that Marcus projected to be a third line center. Now the young man from Sweden will begin his NHL career in that 3rd line center slot, and he even has his team captain praising him.
“He’s impressed me alot. He’s an unbelievable guy and unbelievable player. He has an unbelievable future, I think. He’s amazed me all of the time, I am like ‘Wow, he is a great player,” said the two time Hart Trophy winner.
For Hendricks, making the team was all about his energy and ability to adapt. The bench boss also was very familiar with him, having coached him in 2006-07 in Hershey.
“Matt Hendricks is a different kind of player. First he can play all 3 forward positions. Second, he’s spent a year in the league and third, he can skate, is physical, and can finish his checks. He stirs it up when he has to stir it up. These are the attributes we really like about him and he’s a great dressing room guy as well. I’ve had him [on teams before], he’s a winner, and he competes his rear end off. He’s gonna be a guy, we have 14 forwards, that’ll be in and out of the lineup, but he’s the guy that brings instant energy,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winning coach.
McPhee said that it wasn’t just Boudreau who wanted the forward, who played 56 games for the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10, on the roster to start the season.
“He’s one of those worker bees that you like to have in the lineup. Keeps everybody honest. He’s a terrific guy on the bench and in the room in terms of supporting teammates. He’s got great wheels and he plays hard. He can play left wing, right wing, center, he can play up in the lineup if there are injuries. He brings a lot of versatility and we know him from our experience in Hershey. We just felt that when we were putting our lineup together, asked everyone to submit their lists, he was on everybody’s list, he makes our team better,” finished McPhee on how Hendricks made the Capitals out of training camp.
As for the guys who were sent down, Gordon and Fahey were the ones at risk of being claimed by other teams, but McPhee basically said that is part of the business.
“I’m not concerned about [someone claiming Gordon], if someone claims him and gives him a chance, good for him. If it doesn’t, then we’ll have a stronger team in Hershey and a good kid to call up if we have injuries. We’ve got a good team here and sometimes you lose guys that need opportunities,” stated McPhee on the waiver process.
While the decisions themselves were not easy ones, the GM said that the one on one conversations with the players who didn’t make it was harder and is something he doesn’t like having to do.
“It’s always a tough day telling a player he is not ready to play here or he may have to go through waivers, that is the toughest part of the job and today was as difficult any day we’ve had. They are always tough. The good news is I sometimes look at this deadline as an artificial deadline. We have to set rosters tomorrow but it can change the next day. If someone isn’t performing well or we have injuries, we have good young players to recall to play. That’s really the strength of our organization. We have a good team but we have depth as well,” finished McPhee on setting his roster.
The depth in the organization is abundant and McPhee and his staff have done a super job of growing from within. Doing that has helped the team manage the salary cap as well, which is a necessity in today’s NHL.
“I think we’ve done a really good job on the cap. We’ve got a good team here, we’ve have cap space, we don’t have to spend it but if there is an opportunity to make the team better we will. We are in good shape for the future. I am really proud of where this organization is, we have a good team, we’ve have a good system, we have really good people in that room, we’ve managed our cap well, we won’t lose people that we don’t want to lose, so keep the fingers crossed and hope we continue to make good decisions and do the right things for this hockey club,” started McPhee on the state of his organization.
“In a lot of ways we are lucky. We came up with this plan years ago and fortunately ownership stood by it, Ted stood by the plan. A lot of cities and ownership do not have the patience and we now are starting Friday night with 11 of our own first round picks in the lineup and the league average is four. The closest team to us is seven. So we put this plan together and we are in pretty good shape. It’s a good team, they’re our guys, and hopefully it leads to a Cup one of these days,” concluded the GM on the blueprint he sold to owner Ted Leonsis after the Jaromir Jagr debacle and what he sees as being the end result.
On the ice, things should be a little bit easier for the Caps skilled players as McPhee brought in tough forward DJ King, who will be on the radio on WNST at 815am on Wednesday morning with Drew Forrester, to ensure that the other club is not taking any liberties against his highly talented crew. Ovechkin spoke about that added dimension and what it was like last season after Donald Brashear went to the New York Rangers in free agency.
“I think everybody gonna feel safe and just concentrate on the game, it’s not about something else,” started a reassuring Ovechkin, “[Brashear] was the most experienced guy on the team. He would fight for us and if we needed something he would do it. Last year we missed him, but again it’s life and it’s hockey, it’s a business.”
As for the state of his game, Alexander the Great feels he is ready to go despite not scoring a single goal in his three preseason tilts, although he did rack up five assists.
“It was good lessons for me and it was a good scrimmage, good preseason games, and you don’t show in preseason your best stuff, you just have to be ready for the regular year,” added Ovechkin on training camp.
In goal, it appears that Michal Neuvirth will get the start between the pipes on Friday night with Semyon Varlamov nursing a minor injury. Varly, according to Corey Masisak of CSN Washington, skated for about 15 minutes on Tuesday morning.
“No, but he skated today, took some shots. He’ll probably take more shots tomorrow. It is one of those things where we don’t want to rush him. We’d rather have him for 70 games then 20 games. When he’s ready he’ll be the first one to let us know,” said Boudreau on Varlamov, when asked if there was a timetable for his return.
There has been some talk in the national and Canadian media about the Caps taking a risk with two young goalies but from where I am sitting it really isn’t one at all because both goalies have pretty impressive resumes at such a young age. More importantly, McPhee and the Caps organization have faith in the two goalies who were drafted in 2006.
“It is something that we’ve been excited about. We drafted these kids and this is the third year pro and we think they are both exceptional goaltenders and the thought of having them both compete for games and wins would be good for us. They are young, but they are talented. If it was just relying on one of them I’d be concerned but to have two like this, I think it is a nice tandem that can work very well for us this year,” said McPhee on Varlamov and Neuvirth.
On defense, 2007 first round draft choice, Karl Alzner, and 2008 1st round draft choice, John Carlson, will both start the season in DC for the first time. The two young blueliners were paired together in Hershey during their 2010 Calder Cup winning run. However, it does not appear likely that Boudreau will pair the two together when the season starts, instead opting for a combination that worked well in the playoffs last spring, Tom Poti and Carlson. With Mike Green likely to play with Jeff Schultz again that leaves Alzner to skate with either John Erskine or Tyler Sloan.
But Boudreau, like all coaches do, will likely tinker with the defensive pairs during the course of the season, but after all, that is what the regular season is pretty much about for the Caps this year, to figure things out for the post season, and McPhee made that pretty clear on Tuesday.
“In some ways, I don’t care about whether we win our division or the President’s Trophy or anything else, it is about making the playoffs and having a good playoff run and how we get there is less important than getting there and doing well this year,” finished McPhee.
Notes: Dany Sabourin will be the backup goalie this weekend if Varlamov is unable to dress..McPhee singled out forward Cody Eakin, who was sent back to juniors, as someone with a bright future for Washington…”A kid like Cody Eakin, we were so impressed with him in camp. He may have been the hardest one we’ve had to cut in a long time as a teenager because it just looked like he was getting better. He was probably a kid you could have kept here and he would have gotten better through the season, but coming up with a good NHL player is a two step process, you have to be make a good pick, we made a very good pick in the third round, but you have to develop them properly. Noone has ever not played in the NHL because they’ve played in junior too long, they miss playing in the NHL because you rush them. So we don’t have to do that now, we’ve got good players so we don’t have to rush anybody,” added McPhee on the 2009 3rd round pick and the Caps development process.