It appears as if the Washington Capitals will begin play in the 2009-10 season this week in possession of an extraordinarily unwanted Swedish spare part — Michael Nylander. I’m not sure even Jaromir Jagr’s mid-season flameout here of earlier this decade rivals the novelty of the impasse the Caps have at present with Nyls. At least with that impasse there was resolution, one relatively attendant to the truculent right wing’s not-so-secret wish to get out of D.C. At this the dawning week of the new NHL season, it’s fairly impossible to foresee or forecast a resolution to Michael Nylander’s extraordinary isolation from his Capitals’ team.
Jagr quit on the Caps, plain and simple; he admitted as much before he left New York to finish out his pro hockey career in Russia. Michael Nylander, like Jagr, appeared, initially, to be a sage and savvy acquisition by the Caps. Neither however was well suited for the respective Washington systems in which he skated. Yet you must grant Nylander this: unlike Jagr, he is no malcontent, no killer presence at practice or in the room.
He got badly injured in his first season with the Caps, in 2007, tearing his rotator cuff but continuing to play upwards of a dozen games before the injury became too limiting. Over the summer he healed and rehabbed and returned to the lineup most professionally the following season. But early that next season the Capitals changed coaches, changed systems, and for Michael Nylander that proved injurious without the hope of healing.
He just doesn’t fit in D.C. in Bruce Boudreau’s system, and he’s terribly expensive at a transitional time in his career (nearing the end). Initially his production slipped precipitously as he struggled to try and fit in Gabby’s get-up-and-go gallop, but more recently he’s been unable even to crack the lineup. And so he’s doubly or triply tough to move — he has a no movement clause in his contract as a bit of an exclamation point in this impasse.
If Michael Nylander held out any hope of contributing to the Caps this season, Capitals’ management threw seriously cold water on it with the acquisition of Brendan Morrison over the summer, and that just days after suggesting that Brooks Laich would be seriously auditioned at center on the Capitals’ second line. Then Bruce Boudreau quashed the notion of Nyls contributing altogether this preseason. Figuratively and literally Michael Nylander has been divorced from the competitive portion of training camp, failing to dress for a single preseason game. I can’t ever recall such isolation of an individual player in a Capitals’ preseason before.
In intermittent intervals there were reports over the summer of Nylander holding discussions with Russian teams, suggesting that he was attempting to engineer his own resolution, and as recently as two weeks ago and the start of Capitals’ training camp both General Manager George McPhee and Boudreau expressed their understanding that such talks were ongoing. But that window of transitional opportunity has passed. Or has it? Beginning late last week, and gathering some steam on Monday, some online rumbling out of Sweden offered an intriguing scenario: a suddenly healthy and impressive-looking Peter Forsberg, allegedly expressing interest in skating with the Caps this season. Dmitry Chesnokov wrote about it in the Examiner as well, and he isn’t one to traffic in idle innuendo. But then later Monday word out of the Denver Post had Forsberg suffering yet another foot fracture.
Absent the unlikely scenario of another NHL club expressing the desire to assume Michael Nylander’s hefty contract (two years remaining), the Caps appear stuck with him. Perhaps an injury-ravaged club near the trade deadline this winter will ring George McPhee’s phone and inquire about Nyls, but how could he be showcased to any prospective team when he can’t even crack a preseason lineup? The Capitals’ total sidelining of Nyls this month is highly suggestive that they have no intention of dressing him once the season starts.
Across the scale of organizational lifetime the best comparison I can make with this situation is with the irreparable rupture that transpired between the Caps and Bobby Carpenter in the 1986-87 season. Carpenter then was in his sixth season with the Caps. In 1984-85 he scored 53 goals, becoming the first American to score 50 in the NHL. This was an era in which free agency in the NHL was pretty much non-existent, but Carpenter pursued it anyway in the summer of ’85. No other club danced with him, and he returned to the Caps with somewhat ominous clouds overhead in the fall of ’85. He also showed up to training camp out of shape.
Injuries followed. And when he followed his very mediocre ’85-’86 season with a dreadful autumn in ’86, GM David Poile deemed the dramatically deteriorating relationship between Carpenter and Head Coach Bryan Murray poisonous to the club. In effect Poile fired Carpenter, telling his to stay away from the club until a trade was completed. That deal arrived on New Years Day 1987, and delivered Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley to D.C. from the Rangers.
This impasse with Michael Nylander has a similar feeling — a welcome well worn out, no possible future together, a coach and player who just can’t co-exist. (Ironically, Carpenter would return to the Caps in the early ’90s for a single, ineffectual season.)
How does this all end? Does it somehow magically end this week, before the Caps face Boston on Thursday? Does it even end this season? General Manager George McPhee this preseason explicitly told media that buying out Michael Nylander is not an option. Could the Caps be on the hook with the thoroughly unwanted Michael Nylander all the way through the spring of 2011? And should it linger longer, how big a distraction will this personnel matter be to the Caps in 2009-10? The longer it endures, the more likely, you’d think, it will be for rancor to emerge from one or both sides.
This matter is more than trifling annoyance; this is novel and noxious, and to no small degree it impairs the GM’s ability to strengthen his club as he deems needed as fall and winter give way to spring.