Caps Claim to Open Roster Spot

By Rick Davis

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee told the Washington Post on Tuesday as saying that the Capitals would “devote one opening-season roster spot to a rookie” (The Washington Post, 6/5/01).

The last two rookies to crack Washington’s lineup full-time were Jeff Halpern and Trent Whitfield. Both of these players showed some similar qualities that helped them each displace a veteran player. I’ll try to look at these qualities and attempt to examine what the current crop of Capitals prospects needs to do to make the big squad.

First (and what I believe to be of paramount importance) is both Halpern and Whitfield worked extremely hard at everything they did and did not complain when their roles were limited at times. Both came to camp in excellent shape, and neither were afraid to play the tight-checking game required for the NHL. Halpern scored consistently in the pre-season games in 1999, and Trent Whitfield was leading the AHL’s Portland Pirates in scoring at the time of his recall last year. They both earned their promotions.

Halpern and Whitfield do little things like backcheck on every shift, block shots, and dig along the boards for loose pucks. They are rarely out of position, not afraid to hit people, and have both dropped the gloves a couple of times.

They are both “team first” players.

I think that whoever makes the Capitals will have to show the same kind of commitment that these two players have shown in the last two years. While Whitfield and Halpern are more in the mold of defensive forwards, Washington’s coaching staff seems intent on players who are good at positioning and backchecking, whether they are defensive specialists or not. The theory is that defense wins games, so if each player is defensively responsible, the Capitals will win more games.

A couple of the prospects who have a good chance at making the Capitals next year are offensive-minded forwards like Kris Beech and Michal Sivek. For these players to stay in Washington all year, they will need to not only play solid defensively, but also create scoring chances consistently in order to keep receiving adequate amounts of ice time. Recent history has shown that in general, the Capitals would rather have a prospect receive more ice time at a lower league than allow him to learn in a limited role in the NHL. Because of this, I believe that unless one of these offensive-minded players can score consistently all year that the player will likely spend time in the AHL as well. Another thing that the Capitals seem to like to do is bring up to the NHL whoever is playing the best hockey. This would seem to indicate that instead of having one prospect develop in the NHL all year, we will likely see a little bit of a few different players throughout the year. Of course, someone could come in like Jeff Halpern did a couple of years ago and just make it impossible for the Capitals to cut him or send him down.

The Capitals also have eight returning veteran defensemen (Gonchar, Johansson, Witt, Cote, Klee, Zettler, Reekie, Mironov). This means that in order to make the roster, a rookie will have to outplay two veterans. Dmitri Mironov may retire, and if this happens then the Caps are much more likely to inject some youth into their defense. They would be likely to keep seven defensemen on the roster, and use a veteran such as Joe Reekie or Rob Zettler as the seventh defenseman (and frequent healthy scratch). If a rookie does crack the D (and assuming Mironov retires), one other defenseman (likely Zettler) would have to be sent down to the AHL or traded if the Caps do not wish to risk losing him on waivers.

However, I suspect what will happen with the defense will be much like what has happened with the forwards and defense over the last couple of years – that is, unless a player does an absolutely outstanding job once he is already on the roster, he will be sent down when whatever veteran he is replacing has healed. Then, when a replacement is needed again, whoever is playing the best in the AHL is promoted back up onto the Caps roster. There are pros and cons to this method of development as opposed to letting someone learn on the job, but all I am going to say is that our defense is getting old and slow and I would really like to see someone like Cutta or Farrell make the jump. It may not make a huge difference in the short-term, but in three or four years when Reekie, Johansson, Cote, and Mironov are all retiring or retired, it would be nice not to be forced to start four rookies at the same time on D.

In any case, here is a shortened list of prospects who have a good chance at making the team next year. Someone could always come out of nowhere, and I have omitted others such as Lupaschuk, Tvrdon and Yonkman because I think the Caps want them to play in the AHL first regardless of how good of a camp they have. But who knows…

Krys Barch – Although not especially gifted in the scoring department, Krys plays a hard two way game and has the determination and work ethic to make it to the NHL. The odds are against him, just as the odds were against Whitfield last year. He would play a similar role if he made it, but it is likely the Caps want to see more offense from him at the AHL level before they promote him.

Derek Bekar – Derek’s blazing speed and the fact that he does the little things for his team both work to his advantage. Like Barch, the Caps want Bekar to develop his offense before they bring him up, but I could see him playing a Joe Sacco-esque role on the Caps within the next couple of years.

Kris Beech – Let us not forget that Kris was in last year’s opening night lineup. If he is physically stronger and shows that he has truly dedicated himself to making this team, then it will be difficult for the Capitals to deny him a place in the lineup. If Adam Oates does in fact leave the organization and a new top-line center is not brought in at the beginning of the year, the door is wide open for Kris.

Chris Corrinet –This Chris has had a unique perspective on “How to make the Capitals”, as he was friends with Jeff Halpern at Princeton and watched Number 11 shock everyone and make the team two years ago. He played a couple games in Portland, but it is difficult to gauge his progress against other players given the rather limited amount of time he spent there. He would probably play a similar role that Halpern played in his first year, and if he makes it we may even have a Smart Line of Halpern, Corrinet, and Steve (his brother is a doctor) Konowalchuk.

Jakub Cutta – One of the biggest surprises of last year’s camp has a very good chance of sticking with the team this year if he shows marked improvement and continued commitment to defense. If the Caps want him to develop more offense into his game, they will send him back to juniors again.

Michael Farrell – The other biggest surprise in last year’s camp is a right handed shot and can also play forward when necessary. He was also probably physically the strongest player in Portland last year, and spent the whole year in the AHL. All of these things give Farrell an edge; in my opinion he is the most likely defenseman to make the team. Even if he doesn’t, I would bet on him at least spending some time in Washington next year (especially with the departure of Alexei Tezikov). The competition will still be stiff, and he will have to be in great shape. We’ll see.

Nathan Forster – The Caps kept trying to send Forster to the ECHL last year, and Forster kept showing the Caps that he was ready for the AHL. If he can show how much he improved last year and pick up where he left off, he will turn a lot of heads, even though he is likely to start the year in Portland.

Martin Hlinka – Martin was signed to the Pirates, but the Caps liked him so much that they signed him to a one year, two-way deal at the end of last year. He would be another in the mold of Whitfield and Halpern, a two-way player who can kill penalties and draw penalties based on effort and determination. He is probably a lot closer than people realize, and we will see in September.

Mark Murphy – Last year’s Pirates’ leading scorer, Mark has a much better chance of making the Caps if Adam Oates’s option is not picked up and the Caps don’t acquire a #1 center. He wasn’t dominating the AHL last year, but he was the best offensive player on Portland besides Glen Metropolit. Now that he has more than a full year of experience in the AHL, his size remains his biggest obstacle. While it is likely he will play in Portland next year, I wouldn’t totally count him out.

Stephen Peat – I have to temporarily break from my attempt not to bias myself for any prospects but I really, really hope Peat is healthy and in the lineup when the Capitals play the Penguins next year. He could be a top ten fighter in the NHL in the near future. Injuries have slowed him and it is difficult to say where he is in terms of his development now, but the word is that he will be 100% for camp next year. Hopefully the only thing he will be feeling is a mild case of Kasparitis in his punching hand.

Matt Pettinger – Having played ten games with the Caps last year, Pettinger is as likely to make the Caps roster next year as any rookie forward. His year of AHL seasoning should really help him at camp, and he could end up playing with Kris Beech, who he played with in Calgary (with the Hitmen of the WHL). Matt did not look bad last year when he played with the Caps, and it would not surprise me at all if he made the Caps this year.

Michal Sivek – Michal returns from a year of pro hockey in the Czech Republic, and if he improved his game as expected, I think he would be my choice as most likely player to make the Caps. He is a finesse player, and if he puts up points in pre-season, he could play on one of the Caps’ top two lines next year. The only thing I wonder about with him is his strength – he needs to get stronger, but if he does that I will virtually guarantee that we will see some of him in Washington next year.

Brian Sutherby – Although he is not signed, Brian was one of the last cuts last year and the main reason he was sent down to juniors was his age. He is capable of the defensively responsible two way play that the Caps are looking for in a rookie, and the Caps showed their confidence in him by asking him to play for Portland in the AHL at the end of last year, even though he was not signed. I don’t think the Caps are in a hurry to bring him to Washington, though, and because of his junior eligibility I believe he will really have to play at a higher level than any other forward prospect to make the team.