Dainius Zubrus was last in action in Washington the weekend of February 24, when the team had a home-and-home set with New Jersey. The team played fantastic on the road that Saturday, easily winning 4-2, a late Devils’ goal making the game appear closer than it actually was. The Caps lost a nailbiter rematch on Sunday at Verizon Center. The weekend would mark the conclusion of the Caps’ competitive viability in the ’06-’07 season.
Ever since, through no fault of the remaining roster, this hockey team has, in a landscape of single family brick houses, resembled a hollowed-out mobile home ravaged by Force Ten Fury.
In the midst of our present misery, it isn’t enough to say merely that we in Washington miss Dainius Zubrus; it’s important to inventory why so that we never again take for granted or too easily bid adieu to a key cog.
Three million annually, laid out over four seasons, is simply too much for simply 20 goals. However, it is generously fair value if offered to a team leader who does the dirty work along the boards, regularly cleans up the late-to-backcheck messes made by novice linemates, and splendidly mentors the organization’s building blocks of the present and future. Also, if he’s beloved by his teammates.
It was only at the 11th hour that fans and media here were afforded an insider’s assessment of Zubrus’ actual value to the organization. Conspicuously cautious with long-term deals, and in general regarding three years their ceiling, general manager George McPhee blinked in the closing hours of negotiations and ponyed up four years and $12 million. The offer spoke loudly and clearly: Zubrus was wanted not merely for the completion of the rebuild but for its ascension solidly into contender status — compensated as a valued contributor to it.
We also learned that negotiations with Zubrus and his agent actually began in November 2006.
Zubrus, like Ken Klee before him, chose to roll risky dice and wager that greener pastures would arrive in summer. Klee lost that gamble. Zubrus may, too. The point here today, however, isn’t to beat up an individual player or his agent for the bargaining position they staked out — that’s the business side of our game, and we in the stands are ever removed from it. Rather, I’d have message board reactionaries singularly guided by stats sheets strive for greater nuanced, more sophisticated assessments of the subtleties of the game: of the services rendered during the 59 minutes and 25 seconds of each game not producing scoring.
It truly bears referencing: nowhere in the Washington Capitals’ development pipeline resides a prospect remotely in possession of Zubrus’ assets. Nature just doesn’t often forge such a blend.
Greg Wyshynski of the Fourth Period went inside the Caps’ locker room not long after the trade and captured what struck me as far more than the expected bit of reminiscence of Zubrus offered up by his teammates:
“Zubrus’s presence could still be felt in the Capitals’ locker room where he spent the last six seasons.
“He was always smiling,” recalled captain Chris Clark, who was Zubrus’s linemate for the last two years. “We always said that it’s great to be Zubie. He’s got everything: Great family, great life, being in the NHL. He loved everything about it. He was one of the guys to brighten up the room all the time.”
“Alexander Ovechkin was also on Zubrus’s line, and was taken under the veteran’s wing when he arrived in D.C. last season. Zubrus was a mentor, an interpreter and a host to Ovechkin. He was, according to several members of the organization, one of the most important reasons the Calder winner found his comfort zone so quickly last year.”
Perhaps it’s a byproduct of our culture’s fantasy league fetish, but modern pro athletes are regularly and shamefully cast as “haves” or “have nots” when every once in a while there are also marvelous hybrids. The now regularly 100-point-accumulating Buffalo Sabres know this.
I wish that hockey had a quantifiable statistical column for its dirty work — for those instances in which two competitors race to the dangerous corners in pursuit of the puck, and a victor emerges, and especially when a lone skater betters two of his competitors there. Dainius Zubrus won more than his fair share of such encounters, and for it the Capitals won more games than they should have in his six seasons here.
I miss him. Almost as much as the team.