Capitals training camp preview

By David Rathbun

After an up and down season that witnessed many of the Washington Capitals’ prospects cracking the line-up, the Caps will continue to look to the future this month by welcoming 48 players to their annual training camp which opens on Sept. 15.

Last season’s roster was filled with many new faces as the Caps played their first post-lockout NHL campaign with a makeshift roster and rotated several of their younger players in and out in order to evaluate them against NHL-caliber opponents. Washington not only boasts last year’s NHL rookie of the year in Alexander Ovechkin, but its affiliate, the Hershey Bears, won the 2006 AHL Calder Cup.

Although this season is likely to feature more of the same in regards to prospects seeing occasional games at the NHL level, the Washington roster, however, is fairly crowded, and it will be a battle for young up-and-coming talents to crack the Caps’ opening night line-up.

Forwards

This summer, the Caps waved goodbye to local boy and team captain, Jeff Halpern, and also allowed Brian Willsie to explore the free agent market. Taking their place, the Caps added tough-guy Donald Brashear, and also welcomed back one-time fan favorite, Richard Zednik. In addition, Washington re-signed just about all of their other forwards, and have recently come to terms with Alexander Semin who is a given to make the Caps’ roster. Semin had 19 points in 42 games last year in the Russian Super League. Given the scoring rates in that league, his points per game average should actually go up in the NHL. He previously had 22 points in 52 games with the Capitals during the 2003-04 season.

Notable forward prospects attending camp are highly-touted wingers, Francois Bouchard, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, Jakub Klepis, and Chris Bourque. However, all are longshots to make the opening roster, and Bouchard, a 2006 pick, will likely return to the QMJHL for the 2006-07 season.

Defense

Washington did make a surprise acquisition of the first day of free agency by signing former Ottawa Senator blueliner Brian Pothier, and just recently acquired defender John Erskine. However, despite the additions, the Caps’ defensive corps continues to be the weakest link on the team, and there is still room their for younger players such as Mike Green and Jeff Schultz to try and find a niche right from the start.

Committed to building from within, the Caps also figure to move defenders up and down this season, especially since the Caps recently signed their 14th overall draft pick, Sasha Pokulok, who decided to forego his final two years on NCAA eligibility at Cornell. Green appears to be the most likely candidate to secure a roster spot and is a serious threat to play with the big club the entire season. Last season’s highest scoring OHL defender, Patrick McNeill, will also be at camp, but the 2005 pick will likely return to juniors.

Goalies

There is very little hope here for Caps’ goaltending prospects to make their NHL debuts this season, as the Caps signed Olaf Kolzig to a two-year deal last spring. In addition, Washington was also able to lock up the very capable veteran Brent Johnson to back up Kolzig, and Calder cup star Frederic Cassivi will also be returning as the feature backstop in Hershey – where he will likely split time with prospect Maxime Daigneault.

Roster Availability

It would not be impossible to see two or three Caps prospects make the roster right out of camp. It will however, take some position shuffling to do so. Right now, the left wing position is already solidified with Donald Brasher, Matt Pettinger, Alexander Semin, and of course, Ovechkin. However there is a bit of a logjam at the center position though, as Dainius Zubrus, Brian Sutherby and Brooks Laich will likely occupy the top three slots, leaving a four-way battle between Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, Jakub Klepis and Kris Beech to compete for the final center spot. The right side on the other hand, is showing some daylight as Richard Zednik, Chris Clark and Matt Bradley seem to be the only sure fixtures there, leaving room for up-and-coming winger Fleischmann. Although he is a natural left wing, Fleischmann may have to learn to play the right side due to the already established talent of Washington’s current left wingers. However, he will also have to contend with veterans Rico Fata, and the ever-versatile Ben Clymer.

On defense, Mike Green will likely emerge and could rotate with veterans Jamie Heward, Bryan Muir and John Erskine. However, perennial high-scoring AHL defender, Lawrence Nycholat, will also get a look too.

At right wing, a roster sport is pretty much Fleischmann’s to lose. After a stellar AHL campaign and even a better Calder Cup playoff run, Fleischmann may very well have the leg up on the competition. He is, however, a left winger by trade and will have to adjust to playing on the right side. If he has a strong camp, it is likely that he will start the year with the Caps.

And finally: the center position. After failing to lure top prospect Nicklas Backstrom from Sweden, the Caps will again have a plethora of checking line centers to fill out the remainder of their roster. The one time seventh overall draft pick Kris Beech is probably the most offensively talented of the four hopefuls. However, he has never warmed to the NHL game, and is looking more and more like a career minor leaguer with every passing season. Boyd Gordon’s poise and defensive instincts will likely propel him to the forefront, but even his staying power in the NHL this season will be in question should Gordon’s offensive woes continue in this, his fourth professional season.

Preseason schedule

9/20/2006: Lightning @ Capitals
9/22/2006: Capitals @ Penguins
9/24/2006: Devils @ Capitals (Giant Center, Hershey, PA)
9/26/2006: Capitals @ Flyers
9/29/2006: Flyers @ Capitals
10/01/2006: Hurricanes @ Capitals


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