Saturday morning I made my way to the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston to attend the second day of the Washington Capitals’ training camp. The place was packed but, luckily for me, I’m a former season-ticket holder currently undecided on whether or not to re-up my seats—so I was invited to a pre-practice “Coffee With the Caps” get-together in which a group of 10 or so fellow fence-sitters got to chat with General Manager George McPhee (I arrived late, but not too late to get all the juicy details regarding the semi-controversial signing of Michael Nylander—thanks George!), stuff ourselves with breakfast sandwiches and pastries, and watch the day’s events from the comfort of the complex’s second floor balcony while members of the organization’s guest services department tried to woo us back. (Despite sweet grab bags of hats, stickers, and signed pucks—-as well as a tour of the office and the promise of an Alexander Ovechkin-signed stick—-I have yet to decide on my ticket situation.)
During the drills and following scrimmage, several players stood out, other players looked shaky, and some were completely unnoticeable—which, depending on whether you play offense or defense, is a good or bad thing. But, despite impressive performances during both the rookie and training camps, winger Francois Bouchard and defensemen Karl Alzner and Josh Godfrey were returned to their respective junior league teams on Monday; though all three players demonstrated their high potential, they weren’t likely to beat out any of the more experienced veterans for a place on the roster and aren’t eligible to play in the American Hockey League due to their age. The following day, 19 minor leaguers and AHL-eligible prospects were assigned to the Hershey Bears, leaving forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Chris Bourque, Thomas Fleischmann, Jakub Klepis, Joseph Motzko, Dave Steckel, Kyle Wilson and defensemen Josef Boumedienne, Steve Eminger, John Erskine, Mike Green, Sasha Pokulok, Jamie Pollock, Jeff Schultz, and Tyler Sloan to fight it out for the few remaining spots on the roster.
As far as the forwards go, Steckel and Motzko—the more experienced players on the AHL level—have a harder task of convincing management that they’re more valuable to the Caps in a limited capacity (Steckel is an excellent penalty-killer; Motzko can supply some grit on the fourth line) than they would be in assuming larger roles for the Bears. Fan favorite Bourque, the son of Hall of Fame defensemen Ray Bourque, has some good genes, a strong heart, and a pitbull’s determination in the corners—but the diminutive forward (who is listed at 5’8″, 181 lbs) will always face a size disadvantage in the NHL; another season in the AHL developing his already-strong forechecking, skating, and scoring skills (with the occasional NHL call-up) is likely in his future. Backstrom’s a virtual lock to make the team, though where he plays (center or right wing on either the second or fourth lines) has yet to be determined.
Fleischmann and Klepis are perhaps the most interesting story. The long-time pals, who—on various levels during their hockey careers—have often been joined at the hip, once again find themselves in similar situations: Both are restricted free agents who have yet to sign a contract with the Capitals and are fighting for their jobs. Klepis shows occasional flashes of offensive brilliance and was a leading scorer for the Bears during last year’s Calder Cup playoffs, but has been inconsistent in the NHL. Consistency on the NHL level has never been a problem for Fleischmann, but—unfortunately for the slick-passing left winger—that consistency is in his inability to finish a scoring chance. Both have also declared a lack of interest in playing in Europe should they not make the Caps’ roster; in that event, the Caps may make a trade and give them a chance with another NHL organization.
There’s also a handful of Caps veterans whose future with the club is in question. Competing for spots on the third and fourth lines are wingers Matt Bradley, Ben Clymer, Brooks Laich, and Brian Sutherby. Both Clymer and Sutherby followed up career-best seasons in 2005-2006 with lackluster performances in 2006-2007: Sutherby eventually lost his position as the shut-down center on the third line to Boyd Gordon (who is all but certain to continue in that role this season) and responded with an uninspired effort toiling away on the fourth line (which may have been due to a nagging groin injury that has plagued him almost his entire pro career); Clymer, meanwhile, was shifted from forward to defense then back to forward were he struggled before it was announced in March that he had been playing with an abdominal injury since the day before the season opener and had elected to undergo season-ending surgery. (More on Clymer’s status with the Caps in Tarik El-Bashir’s article in today’s Washington Post.) So far this season, Clymer has played with a lot of spirit, scoring a goal and getting into a fight in the first preseason game as well as getting into a near-scrap with Caps defensemen Shaone Morrisonn during practice after the latter objected to being checked by the former. Laich, who elected to go to arbitration in the off-season, can play any forward position; his versatility is a plus, but he’s not particularly effective regardless of where he’s lined up. Bradley’s a hard-hitter and willing to drop the gloves in defense of a teammate, but he loses more fights than he wins and brings little offense to the table.
Should none of the younger players earn a spot on the team, expect Bradley, Clymer, Laich, and Sutherby to remain with the organization—either on the bench or in the press box—when the regular season begins. But if one of the kids (Fleischmann being the most likely) steps it up, a trade will probably be in the works.
Think that’s complicated? Wait until we get to the situation on defense. All of the Caps’ practices and scrimmages are open to the public; should you be interested in attending go here for a FAQ.