It’s All Good (but for the playing of the games)

Cup'pa JoeWhat did the Washington Capitals accomplish with their preseason this September? A good bit, I think. First and foremost, they accomplished the most important task: they avoided serious injury — we’ve no indication that Alexander Semin’s ankle sprain is serious. The second most significant accomplishment, in my opinion, was seeing a healthy number of fresh faces perform at a high level and well integrate with the returning Caps’ core. Tomas Fleischmann, it appears, has won first line right wing duty. He’ll be centered, at least initially, by Viktor Kozlov. So two-thirds of Washington’s top line is new this season. It looks more playoff worthy than either of its previous incarnations the past two seasons.
Speaking of looking playoff worthy, the Caps break camp boasting one of the most intriguing second lines in all of hockey — assuming Alexander Semin’s ankle is merely a day-to-day ailment. Nicklas Backstrom’s poise and production from his very first exhibition game on exceeded I think even management’s rosiest forecast. Look for him to improve month by month as his freshman season progresses, and for him to be lodged on everybody’s short list of Calder candidates come spring. Like the Caps’ top line, the second, centered by Michael Nylander, is 66 percent new this autumn.
Line three will have a new look as well. Boyd Gordon will center it, and Matt Pettinger will flank him on the left. But another Hershey Bear, Dave Steckel, made real loud noise (especially in the faceoff circle) this training camp. He may best draw man in the entire organization, he plays a smart game, and he partners exceedingly well with Gordon. (Caps’ fans can only hope Gordon and Steckel replicate in Washington their two-way work from Hershey’s postseason run to Calder glory in 2006.) Captain Chris Clark appears to be a bit of the utility infielder for the first three lines — he’s likely to see duty on all three this season. At times he should skate on Gordon’s right, at others — perhaps as with this week, when a teammate up top is injured — he’ll skate in the top 6.
That Caps’ fourth line, just 30 hours before opening night rosters must be submitted to the league, may still have five bodies vying for assignment: Donald Brashear, Matt Bradley, Brian Sutherby, Brooks Laich, and Ben Clymer. In recent seasons the Caps’ roster has had the look and feel of too much muck and grit too high up front. This autumn, a lot of it has been pushed downward, and a logjam has emerged. It’s been at least five years since the Caps could credibly claim three lines capable of producing points with any reliability. They’ll be able to in 2007-08.
There’s considerably less turnover and churn on the blueline: only Tom Poti arrives from outside in the top 6. Caps’ management is looking for its blueline corps to mature and blossom organically, and this September, there were encouraging signs of marked improvement from within. Milan Jurcina returned to Washington brimming with bulging biceps; his teammates coined for him the nickname “Juice.” He doled out dozens of bruising hits last season after arriving from Boston, and 2007-08 could see him stake a legitimate claim as an impact, top-2 physical force.
When the Caps sent Mike Green back to Hershey last spring they instructed him to go offensive. He did. That burst of production from the blueline continued this preseason, when for much of it Green led the Caps in scoring. He was on nobody’s radar for power play point duty three weeks ago; now he may be part of the unit’s second pairing.
Last season Brian Pothier, out of necessity, was forced into roles and minutes he wasn’t accustomed and suited to. Look for him to flourish in a more stable — and within an overall more talented — defensive unit. But he is also capable of performing at a high level — anyone who saw him skate for Mike Sullivan and the United States at last spring’s World Championships would agree.
There were no questions about the Caps in net heading into camp. There are none departing it.
There is health. There is the league-wide sense that while the rest of the Southeast stood pat, the Caps upgraded. There is buzz. There is optimism. All is good. Now, it’s time to drop the puck.

This entry was posted in Boyd Gordon, Brian Sutherby, Brooks Laich, Dave Steckel, Matt Pettinger, Milan Jurcina, Morning cup-a-joe. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It’s All Good (but for the playing of the games)

  1. maruk says:

    It’s gonna be a looooooong friggin’ week.

  2. SovSport says:

    I think Semin will play on Friday.

  3. Oneal says:

    Kolzig had an .850 save percentage in preseason. There’s questions, but no answers.

  4. S Flower says:

    “Milan Jurcina returned to Washington brimming with bulging biceps; his teammates coined for him the nickname ‘Juice.'”
    What was the runner-up choice for his nickname? “Barry Bonds”?

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