Thursday afternoon at 3pm the Washington Capitals rookies will take on a similar crew from Philadelphia down at Kettler IcePlex in Ballston to conclude the rookie portion of the Capitals training camp. The veterans officially start training camp on Saturday morning but most are in town skating already. This is the fourth straight year that the two organizations will meet up for a contest with home ice alternating each September. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau talked about the game Wednesday afternoon after his rookies concluded a practice that included a short scrimmage and he summed up the Thursday afternoon tilt fairly well.
“I don’t know what to expect because I don’t know who their rookies are, we just want to compete, but it doesn’t matter, when you put on a Philly jersey and a Washington jersey the two teams try very hard because there is not a lot of love between the two teams,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award Winner.
Boudreau, whose voice was a little hoarse from coaching up the young guys on the ice the last four days, appeared raring and ready to go and seemed estatic that there would be a full house on hand to watch this tilt (all tickets were previously distributed but you can watch it live on washingtoncaps.com with Steve Kolbe and Mike Vogel bringing you play-by-play and analysis, respectively).
“I think Washington is an unbelievable hockey town. I’ve been impressed all summer, everywhere we went or I’ve gone, with how much people watch the game and unfortunately they knew everything that we did last year or fortunately,” started the three time Southeast Division Champion bench boss, who was laughing during the ‘unfortunately’ part of his quote, “We had a great year and a bad finish,” summed up Boudreau.
A bad finish is correct and the team did not bring back any of the four players that were acquired at last year’s trade deadline (Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger, Milan Jurcina, and Scott Walker). GM George McPhee also did not re-sign veteran goalie Jose Theodore so the Caps will go with Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth in the cage for at least the first part of the season. Journeyman Dany Sabourin was signed to play in Hershey along with 2008 draftee Braden Holtby so those two will battle for the 3rd goalie position in the event that one of the top two gets injured.
McPhee also did not ink any free agents from other clubs, although they did try to sign former Canucks physical defenseman Willie Mitchell, who took a two year deal with the Kings. The GM re-signed his restricted free agents, most notably Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz, and Tomas Fleischmann. Young defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who were both a big part of the Hershey Bears repeat Calder Cup Championship team, will start the season in the NHL and several other Bears, such as Andrew Gordon, Jay Beagle, Mathieu Perreault, and Keith Aucoin will have a chance to make the big club that will begin the regular season on October 8th in Atlanta. So clearly the message from McPhee and the Caps organization is that they like the players they have in their system and they want to see how they do before deciding to make any more changes.
As I mentioned last season, there remains an immediate hole at second line center, something that hurt Washington in their seven game loss to the Canadiens last spring. However, in the system are some very talented young players that can play the pivot such as 2010 first round pick Evgeni Kuznetsov (playing in the Russian KHL this season), 2009 1st round pick Marcus Johansson, and 2010 3rd round pick Stanislav Galiev. All three impressed the Caps and anyone who ventured out to Caps development camp in July saw that center could be a position that Washington is deep in in a few years (Nicklas Backstrom, the first line pivot, is already one of the top players in the NHL and he is only 22 years old). In the short term Fleischmann, Perreault, and perhaps Aucoin will get looks in the exhibition season because as good as Johansson and the others might be right now, they are still very young and their bodies have not fully developed. Thus they would likely not be able to handle an 82 game schedule and the post season. It is a younger NHL these days but the bottom line is that it is still a “Man’s League.” Also, historically the Caps have not been a club that has chosen to rush their draft picks to the NHL, instead wisely deciding to let them mature physically and gain confidence.
Johansson, who is wearing #90 in camp, has been mentioned in the media and around town by bloggers as a possibility to make the Caps out of training camp this fall. The young swede is a very good skater and creates opportunities on the ice. Today during the scrimmage, on one occassion, he gathered in the puck at his own blue line and skated around a couple of opponents easily through neutral ice and as he ventured inside the offensive zone he made a brilliant pass to Patrick Cullity. However the young defenseman overdeked and did not get off a shot. Still the sequence showed the speed and brilliance of the man most Caps fans refer to on twitter as MJ90. After today’s session I caught up with Marcus, who played last season in the top league in Sweden on a bigger ice surface than the NHL, and below is a transcription of the majority of the interview:
WNST: There is a lot of talk about you right now. Tell us where you are at physically, how you are fitting in with the team, and what your expectations are for camp and the season.
MJ90: I feel okay, I guess, it’s a different type of game but it’s getting a little better. Physically I feel great, I’ve been working out hard all summer. I feel like I am ready to take the next step in my career and I am excited about the game [on Thursday] and it’s going to be fun.
WNST: You’ve talked about the adjustment you have to make because of the rink size. How much of a difference is it for you?
MJ90: Yes, in Europe it is wider and the neutral zone is bigger. It is a little different. I think the difference is more straighter hockey – straight to the net – not the way it is at home. It is a little different but I’ll get used to it.
WNST: Your goal is to be up with Washington this year?
MJ90: Yes, I hope so. I am going to give it my best shot and see where it goes and hopefully I can stay.
WNST: Have you talked to [fellow Swede] Backstrom and gotten any advice?
MJ90: Yes, I’ve been talking to him but not that much about hockey. It has been talking and trying to get to know each other better and stuff like that. The hockey part is coming up.
WNST: If someone came up to you and asked you what your strengths were what would you say?
MJ90: I think it is playing with speed and being able to play with the puck with high speed, that is what I do best.
WNST: What if you were asked what is the part of your game that you need to improve the most?
MJ90: I don’t know, that is hard to say. I want to improve and just try to bring my A game every night. Just try to be as good as I can every night and not have too much ups and downs. I just want to be able to keep at a high level all of the time and that’s something I want to learn.
WNST: It will be pretty intense in here for the rookie game. What are your thoughts on the town and the fans so far?
MJ90: It is a great crowd and you know they just love hockey. It’s a different atmosphere than it is at home. It’s awesome.
Galiev, who is wearing #49, speaks english extremely well as a result of playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) last season and the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League (USHL) the year before. He is a very skilled forward who had 60 points in 67 regular season games for Saint John in 2009-10. In the playoffs he notched eight goals and added 11 assists in 21 games as his team lost in the finals of the QMJHL to Moncton, four games to two, in their best of seven series. Had Galiev’s club won that series then the young Russian would have been playing for the 2010 Memorial Cup. Galiev played left wing last season and in development camp but after the July session the Caps asked him to try center. Below is a transcription of the majority of the interview I had with him after Wednesday’s practice.
WNST: Tell about your game and what your strengthts are.
Galiev: Probably my speed and my skills. Usually on the ice I make goal chances and create some good passes.
WNST: What area do you really want to improve this year?
Galiev: Gain some weight and be stronger in the d-zone. Maybe try and play center this year because Bruce wants me to try and play it so I am going to keep working.
WNST: Center, right now at the NHL level, is something that the Caps don’t have a lot of, but in the system they have Kuznetsov, Marcus, and you so obviously they want to get as many guys as they can playing center, which is arguably the most valuable position. So they’ve talked to you about moving over but have you played it before?
Galiev: Not really because it is kind of different for me right now. If I have to play center I go and play it, it doesn’t matter for me.
WNST: So do you think your team, Saint John, has a chance at making the Memorial Cup this year?
Galiev: Yes, we still have a good team but a couple of new guys. They are doing good, the season has already started and they’ve won two games.
WNST: What position did you play? You shoot right.
Galiev: Left wing. I can play right too. Sometimes I switch my wings.
WNST: In the Caps system the center position is different, not as much focused on always being the 3rd man back and it’s aggressive. What do you think of that?
Galiev: I feel a little bit not comfortable because sometimes I don’t know what I have to do. But I’ve been watching Caps games from [last] year to try and focus how to play center. It’s fun, you are always aggressive and you try to make [the other team have] mistakes.
WNST: What are your expectations for the year coming up?
Galiev: Just keep working hard every game the hardest I can. Do my best and try to get 80 points this year, get the Memorial Cup. I have great linemates who are great guys that help me a lot, Nick Peterson [2009 4th round draft pick by the Penguins] and Mike Hoffman [2009 5th round draft pick by the Senators]. It was a good experience for me playing the [QMJHL] finals.
WNST: What are you looking forward to tomorrow in playing the Flyers?
Galiev: Oh I am so excited, I can’t wait for this game. It’s great because I like to play with so many people watching me. I try to do my best.
NOTES: Check back on Thursday night for the transcript of an interview I conducted Wednesday with 21 year old defenseman Dustin Stevenson, who played in the tier II Saskatchewan League in 2009-10. The Caps announced their television schedule today and ALL games will be broadcast in HD this season for the first time ever (yes Comcast Plus is now in HD!). For some great pictures of today’s rookie practice please check out Chris Gordon’s “Caps Snaps” website.