Last year, Washington’s camp was relatively mellow. More than a few veterans did not play the best hockey they could have, because they were virtually guaranteed roster spots no matter how hard they played. Notable exceptions to this were Jeff Halpern, Ulf Dahlen, and Steve Konowalchuk. The overall lack of fire continued into the regular season, and the Caps went 3-8-6-1 in their first 18 games.
Fortunately for Washington and their fans, the Caps eventually won the Southeast Division in spite of the poor start. However, it is certainly in Washington’s best interests not to have that kind of a start again.
Last year, the Capitals had some things working against them that should not be a problem this year. Multiple holdouts hindered the progress of the team – neither Sergei Gonchar nor Chris Simon attended camp. Brendan Witt was still upset about his arbitration hearing, and Peter Bondra had requested a trade.
This year, Jeff Halpern and Glen Metropolit have not been signed yet, but are expected to sign before camp starts. Halpern attended Washington’s rookie camp even though he doesn’t have a contract, and it’s certainly a possibility that he would attend Washington’s main camp without one as well. His leadership has been exemplary over the last couple of years and it would certainly not hurt his chances to become a future captain. Adam Oates, the current captain, has requested a trade. It’s not known whether he will show up at camp or not.
While Halpern’s contract and Oates’s discontent are certainly of paramount importance to the Caps, they must find a way to get out of the gate better than they did last year, regardless of the situation of two players. One way to increase the initial intensity is to increase the competition for jobs in camp, something George McPhee has attempted to do by saying that Washington would carry at least one rookie next year on the opening night roster (statement made to The Washington Post, 6/5/01). In order to have a rookie on the roster, at least one veteran player would have to be waived, traded, or made a healthy scratch.
It is worth noting that at the time the statement was made, Washington’s stable of prospects included Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuk. Beech and Sivek were both expected to challenge for roster spots this fall; now, the question arises: Will the level of overall camp competition fall because of the absence of these two highly regarded prospects?
The answer is not yet clear, but Washington still has some forwards who will raise their level of play during camp, and may make the squad. It’s unlikely any rookies will play the full season in Washington next year, but some will probably receive call-ups at one time or another. Here’s a list of forwards who have the best chance to crack the roster, in order of likelihood.
1. Matt Pettinger – scored almost 20 goals last year in the AHL, but more importantly played 10 games in Washington which gives him an advantage. He has the best chance of all forwards, but Washington wants to see him be a dominant player at the AHL level before he’s a full timer in Washington.
2. Brian Sutherby – has shown continual improvement since his being drafted twenty fifth overall in 2000, and it is a good bet that he will probably play for Canada at the U-20 World Championships later this year. The fact that he is a center may help him if Adam Oates does not show up, and especially if Jeff Halpern isn’t signed. He has a decent chance to make the team, but even if he plays well the Caps will likely send him back to junior just because he needs to get stronger, and more ice time in Moose Jaw would benefit him more in the long term than playing on Washington’s fourth line.
3. Mike Farrell – is a physical presence on the ice when he plays in the AHL. Almost made the Caps last year as a defenseman, and would probably be playing on some other NHL teams who lack the depth at D the Caps have. If he made the Caps, he’d probably play on the fourth line and fill a role as a physical energy player. The odds are that he will be called up once or twice due to injuries this year and if he can show that he belongs, he may well keep a roster spot.
4. Martin Hlika – had a good year in the AHL last year, and has worked hard to earn his way up through the UHL and a Division III college. He won’t ever be a star in the NHL, but could be a decent grinder a la Trent Whitfield. He is going to turn 25 in September, so if he is going to have an NHL career it will probably happen soon.
5. Chris Corrinet – was a very good college player last year, but has not played in a pro season, in which there are many more games. For this reason, he’ll likely spend another year in Portland. He has shown in the past a tendency to be a “streaky” player, and if he can get on a “hot streak” during camp then he could make the team to start. It would be surprising to see him spend the whole year in Washington.
6. Stephen Peat – despite missing almost an entire year with a nagging groin injury, Stephen still is projected as a top-tier NHL enforcer. The Capitals have no enforcer right now, and if Stephen shows he can not be a defensive liability when he is on the ice, the Caps may give him some games in Washington. The Caps don’t want to rush him, and right now it looks like he’ll spend at least a full year in the AHL before he gets his chance in Washington.
7. Mark Murphy – has been productive at the NCAA, ECHL, and now AHL levels. Like Hlika, he has worked his way up through the system and may get a chance to play with the top group of Capitals at some time during training camp. Offense is extremely difficult to find in the NHL, but the key for Mark will be how he plays defensively. If he shows that he won’t be responsible for any goals against in the NHL, the Caps will give him a chance.
8. Viktor Hubl – is a wildcard. If he shows up to Washington’s camp, it’s uncertain how his game will translate to the North American game. He’ll be a role player if he comes over, but even whether he will be here or not is not known. The Caps would probably want him to spend time in the minors just to adjust to the style of game, so if he does come over, he will probably spend the year in Portland.