Rookie Defensemen Surprise Capitals

By Rick Davis
When the Washington Capitals signed Sylvain Cote in July, they pencilled him into their already deep defensive depth chart. They expected that Alexei Tezikov would show improvement this year, and challenge for a roster spot. Brendan Witt and Ken Klee would both go through arbitration, or be signed by the time the season started. Veterans Calle Johansson and Joe Reekie would hold their roster spots, and the rather enigmatic Sergei Gonchar would sign sooner or later, rounding out the top seven.
Dmitri Mironov was put on the trading block and left exposed in the waiver draft, but there were no takers. His age, big contract, and lack of production over the last couple of years were the main reasons he was not taken. If they couldn’t find any teams that wanted Mironov, Washington would either play him as a seventh defenseman or send him to the minors. Washington would also have the option of buying his contract out, in a worst case scenario.

Now that training camp is almost over, things are looking very different for the Caps defensively. Mironov is still with the Capitals, who will probably send him down to the minor leagues or buy out his contract soon. Gonchar hasn’t signed yet, but is close. Two rookies are pushing hard to make the team, and neither one of them are Alexei Tezikov.

Although Tezikov wasn’t an absolute disappointment, he has yet to consistently prove that he was ready for life in the NHL. He didn’t stand out at the scrimmage. He did make one nice play when he blocked a pass with his body defending a two on one, but other than that, he was decidedly average. Which is not to say that he was bad; there are teams in the NHL whose rosters Tezikov could make. But certainly, other rookies in this training camp outplayed him.

One guy that came out of nowhere is Mike Farrell. He was the Capitals’ 8th round selection, 220th overall in the 1998 entry draft. He played three years for Providence College (same as current Caps coach Ron Wilson), before joining Portland near the end of last year. Farrell scored 2 goals in 7 games with Portland in the regular season, and also had 1 assist in 4 games in the AHL playoffs. However, he played mostly as a winger when he was playing with Portland. He has surprised just about everyone by playing extremely well in training camp and in preseason, as a defenseman. Farrell has seen extensive playing time in the preseason, seeing over 31 minutes of playing time in the one game and totaling 4 points in 5 preseason games, with one game to go. His play has been consistently good, and it appears that he is not going to play his way off the roster.

The other big defensive surprise is Jakub Cutta (pronounced Chew-tuh). Cutta was taken by the Capitals in the 2nd round, 61st overall in last spring’s draft. He is only 18 years old (born December 29, 1981), and was expected to be sent back to Swift Current of the WHL this season. However, he has demonstrated skill and poise far beyond his age, and his play may force the Capitals to trade one of their veterans. Cutta is a slick skater, an accurate passer, and is not afraid to hit. He has one goal in five preseason games, but is not really an offensive defenseman.

With this plethora of NHL caliber defensemen, what will the Capitals do? They may start their rookies at the beginning of the season to see how they respond to the higher level. If the rookies start to fade, Cutta could be sent to Swift Current to finish his year, and then could challenge next year for a roster spot. If Farrell struggles, he could be sent to Portland to possibly gain some confidence. The Capitals would like to have young players in the lineup, but they have the depth to afford the young players as much time as they need to develop. Rob Zettler, Jamie Huscroft, and Remi Royer all have played in the NHL, and could be brought up in case of injuries to the Capitals. However, if the rookies continue to play well into the regular season, look for the Capitals to trade one or more of their veterans.