It’s a day of rest not only for Washington Capitals’ players and coaches — well, the players at least — but for the team’s frenzied communications staff as well. Being out at Kettler as much as I have been the past 10 days, I gained a deep appreciation for the commitment of Nate Ewell, Julie Petri, Paul Rovnak, and Mike Vogel, among others. Their days during camp begin early and end late, and at this time of year they’re not only facilitating one of the heavier media flows following camp in years but also putting together the in-season communications products, such as the Media Guide. It’s forecast to be a stunning late September Sunday today, and I hope they’re all out having fun in the fun and recharging their batteries.
The pause in on-ice action is a good time to take stock of what the Caps have achieved thus far in what I believe is the most important training camp in the organization’s history. I made a point during my visits to survey the hockey-savvy heads also taking in the daily doings at Kettler, from print and broadcast reporters to fellow bloggers to fans in the stands, and herewith I’m blending their leading storylines of camp to date with my own.
- Proud Papa. I’ve regularly seen Owner Leonsis as training camp spectator during the past 10 days, and while it’s true he’s no longer involved with the day-to-day operations of AOL, he remains a busy communications man. I think what’s happened with his training camp interest level mirrors that of the rest of us: the quality and depth of the organization on display is so impressive you are fairly compelled to make the trip out there and simply revel in the turned corner of the team’s competitiveness.
- Nylander to line 2. Two years ago Michael Nylander left Washington as a very good hockey player. This fall he’s returned but done so appearing to be more a star. He’s a dynamic playmaker, in supreme condition. And while almost everyone in hockey this summer forecasted an Ovechkin-Nylander top-line pairing, way back in July Head Coach Glen Hanlon very publicly stated his intention of experimenting with top-6 forward combinations, and thus far in camp, the conspicuous chemistry appears to have melded among Alexander Semin, Michael Nylander, and Nicklas Backstrom as Hanlon’s second unit.
- Slick Swede Part II. Speaking of Backstrom, he is irrefutably gaining comfort on the North American-sized sheet of ice — making progress “on a daily basis,” to quote my friend Mike Vogel. At the World Championships in Moscow in May, former Cap and Swedish National Team Head Coach Bengt Gustafsson told us that Backstrom would make that transition successfully and reasonably swiftly, and he was right. Tim Leone up in Hershey thinks it in Backstrom’s, and the Caps’, best interest for him to have a cup of coffee with the Bears this season. Ain’t happening.
- It’s my puck, and I’m keeping it. The Caps don’t (yet) have a dominant shut-down defenseman, so Glen Hanlon’s strategy for improved defensive play this season rests with his club maintaining possession of the puck more often than in the past two seasons, when often they chased it around the rink in futile fashion. If you have the puck more often than your opposition, your goalie isn’t get apt to face 40 or 50 shots each night, and surrender five or six goals most nights. So far, this strategy appears to be taking hold. In training camp’s scrimmages and through the Caps’ first three preseason games, you can see more puck possession and fewer netminders collapsing from fatigue.
- Captain, My Captain/Son of Kono-Dahlen-Halpern. I’ve changed my views on cloning, because of Chris Clark. Meaning no disrespect to Dale and his retired sweater, but should Clark captain the Caps to a Stanley Cup title in one of the next three seasons, he will have to be regarded as the best and most important captain in team history, having guided the team from the barrens of an unprecedented bottoming out to the promised land. And sitting here in September 2007, I wouldn’t stand in line to wager against it. (See Carolina ’05-06, Tampa ’03-04.)
It is Chris Clark’s team-first, two-way versatility that has Glen Hanlon fantasizing about a two-way, impact third line along the lines of the great Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern, Ulf Dahlen trio of a few years ago. That line, you’ll recall, was so dominant that Ron Wilson opened just about every game with it. It was also one that was a lynchpin to the Caps’ postseason participation. The coach has told the media that he’s looking for 60 goals from his third line this season, and given the defensive acumen of Clark and Boyd Gordon, and Matt Pettinger’s offensive pop, it’s natural to invoke the KDH comparison.
I’m also not wagering on Clark’s offensive production diminishing, dramatically, by virtue of his dropping down to line 3. As he noted himself on Media Day, he’s spent the past two seasons taking shifts against the likes of Zdeno Chara and top defensive pairings. Less so, it would appear, beginning this season.
- Deep Depth. The Caps this weekend have 35 players battling for spots on the opening night roster. It’s reasonably easy to forecast another five cuts, but the leap from about 30 to 23 is another matter. To put it charitably, the Caps’ are in uncharted territory, post-lockout, in terms of the skater quality they’ll be showcasing out at Kettler in week two of camp. This is the most basic and encouraging sign of the overall success of the rebuild.
- Three games, three leads. Through three exhibition games, the Caps have only once fielded a fairly veteran lineup — last Thursday night in Ottawa. They opened in Carolina, against a comparatively veteran Hurricanes’ lineup, dressing only John Erskine and Mike Green on the blueline as guys with significant NHL experience from last season (and with BJ in net). In all three games the Caps have played significant stretches with a lead (twice with two-goal leads). There remain mistakes (penalties) and concerns (penalties) aplenty, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Coach Hanlon’s strategy of playing a more puck possession game is abundantly evident. In order to win more often, a team must first establish competitiveness, then achieve leads in games. The Caps have accomplished both early in this preseason.
The next step is to close the deal once you have the lead.
- When did Toronto’s print media come to work in Washington? For the first time in my hockey life, I wake each day knowing that with my morning coffee I need to visit the web sites for both of Washington’s big newspapers in order to follow coverage there of Caps’ training camp. There are files there basically every day. And good ones. Additionally, blog files there. This is as it should be, but to our print guys — and most especially the Times’ Corey Masisak, who’s only taking on the beat of a departed legend — good on you.
- Sharp-dressed men. It’s not anywhere near as important as the talent upgrade, but in this the autumn of uniform mischief, the Caps have showcased the best-looking new threads in the entire league. And it’s not even close. I’ll be particularly grateful when those snazzy white uniform system tops are rightfully returned to wearing on home ice.