Monday, August 18, 2014

Washington Capitals: All-Franchise Teams by the Alphabet -- Team N

Team N is the newest addition to our Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Franchise Teams.  It is a team that might be light in experience, but it makes up for it with effective use of the alphabet.

Left Wing: Paul Nicholson

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 62 games, 4-8-12, minus-39
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

In 1974 the Washington Capitals had 25 picks in the NHL amateur draft, its first as an expansion team in the NHL.  Six of those picks would go on to play in the NHL.  Paul Nicholson was one of them. 

Nicholson was a fourth round (55th overall) pick in that draft after playing for three years with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey Association.  His last season with London, in which he more than doubled his goal total (from 16 to 36) and almost doubled his assist total (from 18 to 33) must have seemed appealing to the Caps.

The Caps being new, shorthanded, and… well, bad, Nicholson got significant playing time in the following season with the big club.  He appeared in 39 games and, considering the team on which he played, had a fairly respectable 4-5-9, minus-29 scoring line (16 players on that team had a worse plus-minus, five of them having played in fewer than 50 games).

Nicholson never got a full season with the Capitals.  Over the following two seasons he played in a total of 23 games without scoring a goal and recording only three points.  He spent most of his time in the minors, shutting among the Richmond Robins, Dayton Gems, and Springfield Indians.  In 1977-1978 he skated for the Port Huron Flags of the IHL, his last season in professional hockey at the age of 23.

He remained attached to the game after his playing days ended, involved in both minor hockey and in mentoring minor league hockey coaches.  Nicholson passed away on September 20, 2011.  His stay with the Capitals was a short one, part of a difficult stage of the team’s history.  But a part of that history he was, and he is the left wing on Team N.

Center: Michael Nylander

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 186 games, 37-91-128, minus-15
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 9 games, 3-2-5, minus-1

Michael Nylander did not become a Washington Capital until he passed his 30th birthday.  By the time he was traded to the Caps in October 1974 he was a veteran of more than 550 NHL games with the Hartford Whalers, Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Chicago Blackhawks.  Having built that resume, the Blackhawks traded Nylander to Washington in November 2002 with a third round pick in the 2003 entry draft and future considerations (which became a fourth round pick in the 2004 entry draft) for Chris Simon and Andrei Nikolishin.

Nylander played 71 games in that 2002-2003 season and finished tied for fourth on the club in points (56), helping the Caps return to the post-season after failing to qualify in the 2001-2002 season.  In the playoffs he was second on the team in goals (3) and tied for third in points (5). However, that post-season lasted only six games, the Caps eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The following season was almost over before it began for Nylander.  Late in training camp, Nylander was checked against the boards by defenseman Nolan Yonkman, suffering a broken leg.  He missed 63 games before he returned to the lineup on February 27th in a 4-1 win against the Florida Panthers. 

By that time, the Caps were 20-34-8-2 and long out of playoff contention.  The team was selling off veterans for draft picks and prospects, and Nylander’s contribution to the effort was being traded to Boston for a compensatory fourth round pick in the 2004 entry draft and the Bruins’ second round pick in that draft.

Nylander, who was about to become an unrestricted free agent, finished the year with the Bruins, recording 12 points in 15 regular season games and another six points in a six-game first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens.  He did not re-sign with Boston, taking a deal with the New York Rangers instead.  After two years in New York, Nylander found his way back to Washington in July 2007 as a free agent, signing a four-year, $19.5 million deal with the Caps.

He played in only 40 games of the 2007-2008 season with the Caps, losing the rest of his season to a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.  After trying to play through it, missing practices intermittently until January, he finally underwent surgery at the end of the month.  At the time head coach Bruce Boudreau said of him, "I give him full marks for having the courage to play the last three weeks with it -- until he couldn't play anymore.  He's tried and he's taken [practices] off, but he just couldn't go anymore. So it was best to get it done.”

In 2008-2009 Nylander dressed for 72 games with the Capitals, but it was not a very productive season.  His nine goals were a career low for Nylander among seasons in which he played at least 40 games.  His 33 assists tied a career low, set as a rookie, for a similar minimum of games.  He would appear in only three of the Capitals’ 14 post-season games.

Part of the problem was a fundamentally different playing style than that which head coach Bruce Boudreau designed.  The Caps, full of growing offensive talent, were a fast-paced group.  Nylander was a player who preferred gaining the offensive zone, peeling off, and looking to set up plays.  It was as if the “Showtime,” fast-breaking Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980’s NBA had a point guard who walked the ball up the court instead of Magic Johnson. 

By the time the 2009-2010 season rolled around, Nylander was not a top-six forward, he was something of a distraction, a poor fit for the Caps and head coach Bruce Boudreau.  Shortly after the season started he agreed to a two-week conditioning reassignment with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL.  In the first week of November he was placed on waivers.  In December he was sent to the Griffins once more.  In January he was reassigned from Grand Rapids to Jokerit Helsinki in the Finnish League. 

That completed the transactions for the 2009-2010 season.  In September 2010, on the eve of the opening of the 2010-2011 season, the Capitals and Florida Panthers completed a loan arrangement in which Nylander would play for the Rochester Americans in the AHL.  He played seven games for Rochester before sustaining a neck injury, ending his season and his career in North America.  He played one more season in Switzerland to bring his career to an end.

Michael Nylander had two tours with the Capitals that might qualify as adventures.  One was marred by injury, the other falling apart as the Caps were tearing the league up due to a playing style that was incompatible with the Capitals’ game.  It was circumstance more than skill that impacted Nylander’s two tours of duty with the Caps.  Nevertheless, that skill provides him a spot on Team N.

Right Wing: Andrei Nikolishin

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 407 games, 58-113-171, plus-20
Playoffs (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 32 games, 1-15-16, minus-2

The careful reader will note that Andrei Nikolishin was primarily a center in his hockey career.  That is not to say he never played on the wing.  And that is why he occupies this space on Team N (there being no pure right wingers in team history whose name starts with the letter “N”).  He came to occupy a spot on the Capitals roster when he was traded to Washington by the Hartford Whalers for Curtis Leschyshyn in November of 1996. 

Nikolishin had just started his third season in the NHL after being drafted in the second round (47th overall) by the Whalers in the 1992 entry draft out of Dynamo Moscow.  He was a forward who showed some early promise as an offensive threat (14-37-51 in 61 games in his second season in Hartford) but fell into more of a checking role with the Caps. 

What helped hold Nikolishin back from contributing more on offense was a tendency to sustain injuries. In the summer of 1997 he sustained a knee injury and missed 38 games the following season.  In 2000 he suffered an abdominal injury that he largely played through.  In 2001, a leg injury slowed him down.  There were also contract problems over the years.  In 1998 he held out briefly at the start of the season before agreeing to terms of a new deal.  In 2002 he threatened a holdout rather than accept a qualifying offer and was traded that November to the Chicago Blackhawks with Chris Simon for Michael Nylander, a third round pick in the 2003 entry draft, and future considerations.

But in the midst of all of that, Nikolishin was a solid checking forward who was effective on faceoffs and in his own end of the ice.  In 1998, despite playing only 38 regular season games as a result of his knee injury, he was a very productive performer during the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup finals.  He finished the post-season third on the team in scoring (14 points in 21 games) and led the club in assists (13).

That would be the high point of his offensive performance with the Caps.  The following season, perhaps affected by the early season holdout, he scored only eight goals in 73 games, although he did set a personal record for the Capitals portion of his career with 27 assists.  The next three seasons were more of the same – solid if unspectacular, an average of 12 goals per season and 33 points, with a plus-5.  In the post season, though, he could not recapture the touch he had in 1998.  In 11 games covering the 2000 and 2001 post season, he registered only two assists and no goals and was a minus-6.

After the Capitals failed to make the post-season after the 2001-2002 season, and the Caps were not willing to accept his contract demands, they traded him to Chicago.  He spent a year with the Blackhawks, going 6-15-21 in 60 games, then moved on to Colorado, where he was 5-7-12 in an injury-plagued season that limited him to 49 games. 

The 2003-2004 season in Colorado was Nikolishin’s last in the NHL.  He returned to Russia during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout and played with CSKA Moscow.  He stayed in Russia when the NHL resumed play for the 2005-2006 season and played with several teams before his career ended with Traktor Chelyabinsk in 2010-2011.

Over six seasons with the Capitals, Andrei Nikolishin did a lot of the hard work necessary to win hockey games – solid checking, responsible defense, occasional offense – for a team that won 225 games over those seasons.  He might have been held back by injuries and contract issues, but he was an important part of those teams and gets a spot on Team N.

Defense: Lee Norwood

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 34 games, 7-11-18, plus-4
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Lee Norwood put the “journey” in journeyman hockey player over his 12-season NHL career.  He played 503 regular season and 65 post-season games with seven different NHL clubs.  Two of those seasons were spent in Washington.

It started in Quebec where the Nordiques picked him in the third round (62nd overall) in the 1979 entry draft from the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League.  After another year with the Generals, Norwood skated for the Hershey Bears in the AHL and got his first taste of NHL action with 11 games in the 1980-1981 season.    

The following season Norwood skated for the Fredericton Express in the AHL for 29 games with a two-game stop in Quebec when he was traded to Washington with a sixth round draft pick in the 1982 entry draft for Tim Tookey and the Capitals’ seventh round pick in the 1982 draft.  He skated in 26 games with the Caps to close the season and had a very  respectable seven goals and 17 points in 26 games.  That was largely a product of his deployment on the Capitals’ power play, on which he went 3-7-10

What might have been more noteworthy, though, was his accumulating 125 penalty minutes in those 26 games.  That included five fights on a team that tended to engage in that sort of thing frequently (84 fights, third in the league that season). 

That would be pretty much the sum and substance of Norwood’s stay in Washington.  In 1983-1984 he played in eight games for the Caps (one assist, minus-3) before he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Dave Shand.  Oddly enough, despite playing for seven clubs in his NHL career, Norwood never suited up for Toronto.  He spent the entire remainder of the 1983-1984 season with the St. Catharines Saints in the AHL, then the next season with the Peoria Rivermen of the IHL. 

After that he resumed his trip through the NHL, moving on to St. Louis, then Detroit, New Jersey, Hartford, back to St. Louis, and then to Calgary where he finished his NHL career in 1993-1994.

Lee Norwood, who acquired the nickname “Hack” for his rugged style of play, occupies a small place in the early history of the Washington Capitals franchise.  But he made the most of his limited time with the club and gets a spot on the blue line for Team N.

Defense: Lawrence Nycholat

Regular Season (with Capitals): 1 seasons, 18 games, 2-6-8, minus-3
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

OK, here’s the thing.  Only four defensemen in Capitals history have last names that begin with the letter “N.”  Lawrence Nycholat has the second highest number of games played for the Caps among those defensemen.  His contribution to the club came in the 2006-2007, in his second NHL season. 

He came to the Caps by way of the New York Rangers in a roundabout way.  Nycholat was signed by the Minnesota Wild as an undrafted free agent in August 2000.  He never played for the Wild, bouncing around the minors before he was traded to the Rangers for goaltender Johan Holmqvist in March 2003.  Nycholat got a taste of NHL play the following season, playing nine games for the Rangers in 2003-2004.

The 2004-2005 lockout intervened, at the end of which Nycholat signed a free agent deal with the Capitals.  He played the 2005-2006 season with the Hershey Bears, winning a Calder Cup in the process, then split time in the 2006-2007 season between  Hershey and Washington.  In February 2007 he was traded to Ottawa for Andy Hedlund and the Senators’ sixth round pick in the 2007 entry draft.

He spent parts of two seasons with the Senators before heading on to Vancouver in a trade for Ryan Shannon in September 2008.  After getting limited action with the Canucks, he was claimed by the Calgary Flames on waivers in March 2009.  He did not play for the Flames, sent instead to Colorado in March 2009 with Ryan Wilson and a 2009 second round draft pick for Jordan Leopold.  Again seeing limited time in the NHL, Nycholat returned to Vancouver as a free agent in July 2009, never seeing action with the Canucks in his last year in an NHL organization.  He finished up his hockey career playing with the Hershey Bears in 2010-2011 and then with the Krefeld Pinguine in Germany for the 2011-2012 season.

Lawrence Nycholat played only 18 games for the Caps.  It would be hard to say any of them were memorable from a fan’s perspective, those games coming during a season (2006-2007) when the Caps were still struggling to return to competitiveness after the 2004-2005 lockout.  Still, he will get the second spot on defense for Team N.

Goalie:  Michal Neuvirth

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 134 games, 59-41-13, 2.67, .910, 7 shutouts
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 9 games, 4-5, 2.34, .912, 1 shutout

The 2006 NHL entry draft was a big one for goaltenders.  Five of the first 34 picks were netminders.  Michal Neuvirth of the Czech Republic (HC Sparta Praha Junior) was taken with that 34th overall pick.  Rather than spend another year in the Czech junior leagues, Neuvirth made the jump across the ocean to Canadian juniors where he played for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in 2006-2007, backstopping the Whalers to the semifinals of the Memorial Cup.

That was only the beginning of a long and winding road to Washington and the Capitals.  In 2007-2008 Neuvirth played for three OHL teams – the Whalers, the Windsor Spitfires, and the Oshawa Generals – posting a 17-7-8, 3.12, .911 record in the regular season and a 7-2 post-season record.  In 2008-2009 he made the jump to professional hockey and split his time between the Hershey Bears and the South Carolina Stingrays.  He was also called up to the Caps for five games to introduce him to NHL competition.  It was in Hershey where he left his mark, though.  Neuvirth went 16-6, 1.92, .932 with four shutouts, winning the Jack Butterfield Trophy as most valuable player in the Calder Cup tournament as Hershey won the AHL championship.

In 2009-2010 Neuvirth got a little longer look in the NHL, getting 17 games with the Caps (9-4-0, 2.75, .914), but it was again with Hershey that he was most successful, winning a second straight Calder Cup with the Bears.

This was a period in which Neuvirth was locked in a battle with Semyon Varlamov to see who would emerge as the number one goaltender for the Caps.  Varlamov, who was drafted ahead of Neuvirth in that 2006 draft (23rd overall), was a step ahead of Neuvirth throughout the developmental chain.  Most notably, while Neuvirth was in Hershey winning Calder Cups in 2009 and 2010, Varlamov was in Washington tending goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  However, Varlamov was also prone to injury, and in 2010-2011, when Varlamov battled groin and knee injuries, Neuvirth made the jump all the way to number one goaltender.  He appeared in 48 games, posting a 27-12-4 record with a 2.45 goals against average and a .914 save percentage with four shutouts.  The appearances, wins, goals against average, save percentage, and shutouts would be career highs for Neuvirth with the Capitals.

Neuvirth would make his only post-season appearance for the Caps in that 2010-2011 season.  It was a tale of two series.  In the opening round against the New York Rangers he was excellent, winning four of five games, posting a goals against average of 1.37 and a save percentage of .946 with one shutout and two of his wins coming in overtime.  You could say this was the high point of Neuvirth’s career with the Capitals.  In the second round against Tampa Bay he was 0-4, 3.74, .867 as the Caps were swept by the Lightning.

By the time the following season rolled around, the Caps had moved Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche, and it seemed Neuvirth would emerge victorious in the battle for the number one spot in goal.  However, the Caps signed veteran Tomas Vokoun, and it was he who took the lion’s share of appearances (48), while Neuvirth was more of a “1-A” goaltender with 38 appearances.  Even in those he was not outstanding, posting a 13-13-5, 2.82, .903 record with three shutouts.

Making things worse, Neuvirth suffered a knee injury in a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers in April ending his season.  His absence paved the way for Braden Holtby to assume the number one duties for the playoffs, and when Holtby put up excellent numbers (1.95 GAA, .935 save percentage in 14 games), it relegated Neuvirth to backup status once more in the 2012-2013 season. 

It was a role Neuvirth would play over the next two seasons, posting similar numbers for the Caps.  He made 13 appearances in each of those years, going 4-5-2 in 2012-2013 and 4-6-2 in 2013-2014.  In the 2013-2014 season Neuvirth was not only clearly the backup to Braden Holtby, he was being pressed by Philipp Grubauer for the backup position on the basis of strong performances when called up from the Hershey Bears.  In December, Neuvirth, through his agent, requested a trade.  

In March, his wish was granted.  Neuvirth was traded to the Buffalo Sabres with defenseman Rostislav Klesla (who the Caps had just obtained in a trade) for goalie Jaroslav Halak and a third round pick in the 2015 entry draft.  It was an opportunity for Neuvirth to take a firm hold on a number one goaltending job with the trade of the Sabres’ Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues, but Neuvirth appeared only twice for Buffalo before sustaining a hip injury that ended his season.

Michal Neuvirth was a symbol of the unfulfilled hope that surrounded the Capitals as their fortunes improved in the 2008-2013 period.  Neuvirth, a championship caliber goalie at the AHL level, could never replicate that success in the NHL.  It seemed as if every time he was about to cement his status as a number one goalie who could lead the club to success, something happened – an injury, an untimely cold streak – that derailed his, and the team’s progress.  Nevertheless, in his six seasons with the Caps he posted 59 wins, ninth in team history.  Perhaps surprisingly, among Capital goalies having played in at least 125 games for the club, Neuvirth has the best save career save percentage (.910).  He gets the nod in goal for Team N.

Team N...short on experience, long on "Ns."  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Washington Capitals: All-Franchise Teams by the Alphabet -- Team M

“M” stands for…well, “M.”  It is that team to which we now turn in the Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Franchise Teams.

Left Wing: Kelly Miller

Regular Season (with Capitals): 13 seasons, 940 games, 162-246-408, plus-75
Playoffs (with Capitals): 13 seasons, 119 games, 20-34-54, even

No player drafted lower in the 1982 entry draft played more NHL games than Kelly Miller.  In fact, the seven players taken after Miller in the 1982 draft who appeared in the NHL played in a total of 86 games.  Miller, drafted in the ninth round (183rd overall) by the New York Rangers, played in 1,057 NHL games, 940 of them with the Washington Capitals.

Miller came to the NHL, if not a prolific scorer, then a consistent one in his four seasons at Michigan State University.  Over a 163-game career with the Spartans, Miller was a point per game player (82-82-163).  He was a Hobey Baker finalist in 1985, an honor he shared with Adam Oates and Spartan teammate Craig Simpson, both of whom would go on to have noteworthy NHL careers of their own (former Caps assistant coach Tim Army was also in that Hobey Baker class).

Scoring was not quite the role he adopted once reaching the NHL.  In his first two seasons with the Rangers he was 13-22-35 in 74 games.  The following season (1986-1987) he was on a similar pace mid-way through the season.  Then, on New Year’s Day 1987, he was traded with Mike Ridley and Bob Crawford to the Caps for Bobby Carpenter and a second-round pick in the 1989 entry draft.

In 39 games with the Caps to finish the season Miller was 6-14-20, almost right on his scoring rate in 38 games with the Rangers.  It would kick off a remarkable string of seasons characterized by their consistency.  In the 11 full seasons that followed Miller never played in fewer than 74 games of a full season (he played in all 48 games of the abbreviated 1994-1995 season).  He missed a total of only 23 of 862 regular season games and played in every regular season game five times.

He spent those 11 seasons as a checking line forward, although five times he reached the 40-point mark and twice hit or surpassed 50 points.  He even had a flair for the dramatic.  His five overtime goals is tied for third in franchise history with none other than Peter Bondra.  His 408 points is tied for 11th all time among Capitals forwards.

His forte, though, was preventing scores.  Five times he received votes for the Selke award as the league’s top defensive forward.  Three of those times he finished in the top-10, once finishing as a Selke finalist (1992).

In 1997-1998 Miller appeared in 76 games, the last in his 11-year run of appearing in at least 74 games in a full season.  However, his offensive production dried up.  For the first time in his career he finished a season without hitting double digits in either goals or assists (7-7-14), perhaps vaguely related to a concussion he suffered at the end of the 1996-1997 season.  He did, however, appear in ten post-season games in the Caps’ run to the Stanley Cup finals.

The next season – 1998-1999 – was Miller’s 12th full season in Washington.  It was not a very good one, Miller being limited to 62 games on a team hobbled by injuries and finishing with just two goals and seven points.  It was Miller’s last NHL season.  He spent a year with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the IHL before ending his career for good. 

Kelly Miller is part of a storied family in college hockey, three of whom (brothers Kevin and Kip being the others) having played for the Capitals.  Kelly was the first and had a storied career of his own with the Caps, fitting squarely in line with a family of hard-nosed, checking forwards that defined the Caps in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Kelly Miller gets the assignment on the left side of Team M.

Center: Dennis Maruk

Regular Season (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 343 games, 182-249-431, minus-46
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 4 games, 1-1-2, even

Before there was Alex Ovechkin, before there was Peter Bondra, before there were the Goal Dust Twins – Mike Gartner and Bobby Carpenter – there was Dennis Maruk.  An undersized center instantly recognizable with his period Fu Manchu moustache, Maruk was the first player in team history to score 50 goals in a season.  He was the first Capitals to score 60 goals in a season (only the sixth player in NHL history to do it when he hit for 60 in 1981-1982).

He did not get his start in D.C.  He got started when he was drafted in the second round (21st overall) by the California Golden Seals in the 1975 amateur draft.  Even by then, he had a reputation as a goal scorer.  In three years with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey Association, he scored 159 goals in 191 games.  He kept it going in his rookie year, finishing with 30 goals in 80 games, good enough for him to finish third in the Calder Trophy voting for top rookie.   Not even the Seals’ relocation to Cleveland slowed him down. In two years with the Barons he scored 64 goals in 156 games.  When the Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars for the 1978-1979 season, though, he found his stay in Minnesota short.  Two games into the season he was traded to Washington for a first round pick in the 1979 entry draft. 

Maruk finished the season with 76 games played for the Caps and 31 goals, making it three seasons in his first four scoring at least 30 goals.  His second season was plagued by injury, and he finished with only ten goals in 27 games.  He more than made up for it in the 1980-1981 season.  On April 5th he became the first Capital to score 50 goals in a season when he solved Detroit Red Wings goalie Larry Lozinski in a 7-2 Washington win at Capital Centre. 

Maruk set a higher standard the following year.  On April 3, 1982, he scored his 60th goal of the season, his second of the game, in a 6-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto.  He went on to finish the season with 136 points, a team record that stands today and, that being only the dawn of the Wayne Gretzky era, it made Maruk only the eighth player in NHL history to record that many points in a season.

It was only to be expected that his production would fall off some the following season, but he fell all the way to 31 goals.  Part of it was being moved from the middle to the wing to accommodate second-year center Bobby Carpenter. 

The 1982-1983 season was Maruk’s last in Washington.  In July 1983 he was traded back to Minnesota for a second round pick in the 1984 entry draft.  Maruk remained with the North Stars for the final six seasons of his career, scoring a total of only 80 goals over those seasons and topping 20 goal in a season just once.  In a 3-0 loss to the Capitals in February 1988, Maruk suffered a shattered kneecap trying to block a shot from Grant Ledyard.  The injury would be Maruk’s undoing.  He played in only six games in the 1988-1989 season, his last in the NHL.

Over the 1980-1981 and 1981-1982 seasons only Wayne Gretzky (147) and Mike Bossy (132) scored more goals than Dennis Maruk (110).  He was perhaps the most entertaining aspect of Capitals hockey in what were the later stages of its difficult formative period.  He was certainly the most effective part of it.  Despite his lack of size, his feistiness and prolific goal scoring ability put him in the middle on Team M.

Right Wing: Alan May

Regular Season (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 345 games, 27-42-69, minus-19
Playoffs (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 39 games, 1-2-3, even

Alan May was arguably the orneriest player in the history of the Capitals franchise.  Players took liberties with the Capitals at their peril over his five seasons with the Caps.  From 1989-1990 through 1993-1994 May compiled 1,189 penalty minutes, the most of any NHL player over that five-year span (teammate Dale Hunter was the only other player to record more than 1,000 minutes (1,001)).  His average of 3:27 in penalty minutes per game is by far the most in Capitals history (Craig Berube is second with 2:55) among those players having played as many games for the club as May (345).

It was not mere thuggery on a team that had little else to offer.  May was a night-to-night presence and contributed a solid defensive game on a team that won 200 games over his five seasons in Washington, and the 1989-1990 team (his first season with the team) advanced to the conference finals for the first time in its post-season history.

May’s career started as an undrafted free agent signed by the Boston Bruins in October 1987.  He skated only three games for the Bruins in the 1987-1988 season before he was traded to Edmonton for Moe Lemay in March 1988.  After three games with the Oilers in the 1988-1989 season, it was off to Los Angeles in March 1989, a trade with Jim Wiemer for Brian Wilks and John English.  He never played for the Kings, traded just three months later to Washington for a fifth round pick in the 1989 draft.

In Washington he found a home.  He certainly started with a bang.  Perhaps it was fitting that his first game with the Caps was against their bitter Patrick Division rival, the Philadelphia Flyers.  The Caps won, 5-3, May earning four penalty minutes in the contest.  It was representative of the hard divisional fights during that period of Capitals hockey of which May was an integral part.  May also rose to the occasion against division opponents when it came to his own offense.  Though more a checking/physical forward than an offensive one, he recorded 12 of his 27 goals for the Caps against Patrick Division opponents.

Late in the 1993-1994 season he was traded to the Dallas Stars with a seventh round pick in the 1995 entry draft for defenseman Jim Johnson.  A year later the Stars traded him to Calgary for an eighth round pick in the 1995 entry draft.  May played seven games for the Flames at the end of the 1994-1995 season in what would be his last season in the NHL. 

Alan May helped define a period of Washington Capitals hockey.  The late 1980’s and early 1990’s was a period characterized by neither asking for nor giving quarter to opponents.  Those were generally hard-nosed teams that had to struggle for their success.  In fact, the 1990 conference finalist team was one that finished below .500 in the regular season.  May’s contributions came in the defensive end of the ice for the most part and in ensuring that no team could impose their will physically on the Caps.  It was a hard way to play and make a living (his 94 fights in a Caps uniform is testimony), but it was an important part of the Caps’ success of that period.  For that, Alan May is skating on the right side of Team M.

Defense: Shaone Morrisonn

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 377 games, 9-53-62, plus-26
Playoffs (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 27 games, 0-2-2, minus-1

Late in the 2003-2004 season, when the Washington Capitals were selling off their veteran assets to commence their rebuild, it meant parting ways with Sergei Gonchar, one of the most prolific offensive defensemen of his era.  The Caps traded Gonchar to the Boston Bruins for a first round pick and a second round pick in the 2004 entry draft, and a 21-year old defenseman wrapping up his second season with the Bruins – Shaone Morrisonn.

Morrisonn was one of 16 defensemen to dress for that 2003-2004 club and played three games with the Caps.  Coming out of the 2004-2005 lockout, Morrisonn became a cornerstone on the blue line, leading all Capitals defensemen in games played (80).  On a team that was still struggling with too young talent and a lack of experience, Morrisonn provided some steady play.  He was not an offensive defenseman (one goal and 14 points for the season), but he played 20 minutes a night and led all defensemen in plus-minus (plus-7), the only Caps defenseman playing more than half the team’s games to finish on the plus side of the ledger.

It was the first of what would be five very consistent seasons for Morrisonn with the Caps, output wise.  He ranged from 10 to 14 points, from plus-3 to plus-8.  However, there were two things that reflected both his role and those around him.   Starting with that 2005-2006 season he played in fewer games each year: 78 in 2006-2007, then 76, 72, and 68.  Over the first three of those seasons Morrisonn averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time a night.  In the last two his ice time dropped to less than 18 minutes a game.

With Jeff Shultz coming off a plus-50 season and Karl Alzner being groomed for a spot in the lineup, Morrisonn’s spot as a “defensive” defenseman was in jeopardy after the 2009-2010 season.  Coming off a one-year deal paying him $1.975 million, the Caps seemed to be disinclined to give him much of a raise.

Late in the summer of 2010 Morrisonn signed a two-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres.  He appeared in 62 games for the Sabres in 2010-2011, but he was demoted to the Rochester Americans of the AHL in 2011-2012, where he played in 65 games.  A free agent after that season, Morrisonn headed to Europe.  He is currently playing with Medveščak Zagreb in the KHL after stops with Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow.

Shaone Morrisonn played a quiet sort of game that did not set off fireworks.  But his stay at home style was also characterized by a certain toughness.  In 2008 he played in all seven games for the Caps in the post-season despite suffering a broken jaw and a separated shoulder.  He was one of those players who played through the team’s rebuild without enjoying much of the payoff at the end.  But he was a solid player over his five-plus seasons with the Caps and patrols the blue line for Team M.

Defense: Larry Murphy

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 453 games, 85-259-344, plus-57
Playoffs (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 42 games, 9-17-26, plus-1

To the extent that Capitals fans remember defenseman Larry Murphy, it might be only for “oh yeah, the guy everyone shouted ‘whoop’for.”   That isn’t really fair to Murphy.  In his six seasons with the Capitals, only seven defensemen compiled at least 85 goals and 340 points.  Murphy (85-259-344 with the Caps over those seasons) was one of them. 

Murphy began the Capitals phase of his career after spending three seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, who made him the fourth overall pick in the 1980 entry draft.  Six games into his fourth season with the Kings he was traded to Washington for Ken Houston and Brian Engblom.  It started a four-year period in which Murphy’s offensive numbers improved each year.  From 13 goals and 46 points with the Caps over 72 games of the 1983-1984 season, Murphy improved to 23 goals and 81 points over 80 games of the 1986-1987 season.

In that 1986-1987 season Murphy was named to the second NHL all-star team with Calgary’s Al MacInnis, and he finished third in the Norris Trophy voting behind Ray Bourque and Mark Howe.

Murphy slipped some in the 1987-1988 season, going 8-53-61, but it was still good enough to finish tied for ninth with Montreal’s Chris Chelios in points among defensemen.  His most important play that year came in the post-season, though.  Every Caps fan of the period remembers that in overtime of Game 7 of the opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, Dale Hunter ended the series.  Folks might not remember it was Murphy who stood up the Flyers’ Murray Craven at the Capitals’ blue line, poked the puck off his stick, then fed the puck through the neutral zone to a breaking Hunter to start the final scoring sequence...

Even by that time, though, fans seemed to be souring on Murphy’s game, which was viewed as neither physical enough or “defensive” enough.  In 1988-1989 his offensive numbers dropped again, and the fans turned on Murphy, perhaps as a symbol of the frustration felt at the Caps failing to advance past the second round of the playoffs in any of his five seasons with the club.  In March of that season Murphy was traded to the Minnesota North Stars with Mike Gartner for Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse.

After spending parts of three seasons with the North Stars, Murphy moved on to Pittsburgh, where he skated on two Stanley Cup winning teams with the Penguins.  After five years in Pittsburgh he went to Toronto for parts of two seasons.  From there it was on to Detroit, winning two more Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, the second of which was won on Capitals home ice in 1998.  Finally, after his 21st season in 2000-2001, Murphy retired.  He is still fifth in all-time scoring among NHL defensemen (1,216 points) and was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.

Despite playing only parts of six seasons with the Capitals, Larry Murphy is still fifth in scoring among defensemen in club history (344 points).  On a points-per-game basis, Murphy is the best offensive defenseman in Capitals history (0.76 points per game).  Those playoff frustrations and the perceptions of inadequacy in Murphy’s game left fans wanting more from him, though.  In hindsight, Murphy deserved more respect for his game.  It is certainly more than enough to give him a spot on Team M.

Goalie: Bob Mason

Regular Season (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 76 games, 35-29-7, 3.16,  .889, 1 shutouts
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 4 games, 2-2, 1.75, .937

The lasting image Washington Capitals fans have of goaltender Bob Mason is one of him on one knee, exhausted after 128 minutes of hockey, the New York Islanders Pat LaFontaine celebrating with his teammates on winning Game 7 of the opening round of the 1987 playoffs in a fourth overtime.

There was more to Mason’s career with the Capitals than that.  He was signed as an undrafted free agent in February 1984 after two seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and a stint with the U.S. national team, including three games in the 1984 Winter Olympics. 

Mason appeared in two games for the Caps in that 1983-1984 season and five more with the Hershey Bears in the AHL.  He bounced between the Caps and the AHL in each of his next two seasons before catching on with the Caps for good in the 1986-1987 season.  Mason led the team in appearances in 1986-1987 (45) and finished the regular season with a record of 20-18-5, 3.24, .890.

In the post season, Mason started on the bench in favor of the more experienced Pete Peeters.  After Peeters and the Capitals split the first two games of their series with the Islanders, Mason got the call in Game 3.  In its own way it would be historic.  Mason stopped all 26 shots he faced to record the first shutout in Capitals playoff history, a 2-0 win on Long Island.  The following night Mason also faced 26 Islander shots, allowing a single goal in a 4-1 Capitals win that gave them a 3-1 lead in games.

In Game 5 Peeters got the call, the Caps dropping a 4-2 decision at Capital Centre.  Head coach Bryan Murray turned to Mason to try and close out the series on Long Island in Game 6, but the Islanders prevailed by a 5-4 score in a game that might have ended worse for the Caps but for Mason stopping all 18 shots he faced in the first period.

That set up the Easter Epic, the longest game in Capitals history to that date.    It was a game full of ups and downs, but in the end it was a heartbreaking night for the Capitals.  It was also the last game Mason would play for the Capitals.  He signed with the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent the following June.

After a year in Chicago, Mason was traded to the Quebec Nordiques for Mike Eagles (who later would be a Capital).  Another year later, Mason made his way back to Washington for future considerations.  He was one of five goalies the Caps used in the 1989-1990 season, getting 16 appearances with a record of 4-9-1, 3.50, .877.  After losing eight of his last nine decisions, he did not appear in another game after giving up four goals in a 5-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils on February 9th.  It was his last game for the Capitals.

Mason played in one more season, appearing in six games for the Vancouver Canucks in the 1990-1991 season that would be his last in the NHL.  He spent four more years in the minors before his career ended after the 1994-1995 season.

Bob Mason is remembered for one game, one that any Capitals fan from the period remembers vividly to this day.  Lost in the disappointment is the fact that it was and remains one of the great single game performances by a goaltender in Capitals history.  There were other contributions to the club in his brief stay, though, and it makes for Bob Mason starting in goal for Team M.

Team M is a combination of grit and skill, a reflection of its era, with most of the players coming from a time when hockey was more of a rough and tumble sort of game.  They might not win every game, but they would not go down without a fight.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Washington Capitals: All-Franchise Teams by the Alphabet -- Team L

We are up to the letter “L” in our look back at the Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Franchise Teams. This one represents each decade in the history of the franchise.

Left Wing: Brooks Laich

Regular Season (with Capitals): 10 seasons, 616 games, 125-172-297, plus-1
Playoffs (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 51 games, 9-21-30, plus-1

When the Washington Capitals embarked on the Great Selloff/Rebuild, 2003-2008, they had to part with a number of veterans, some of them with deep roots in the community and wide following among Caps fans. No Capital had a more devoted fan following than forward Peter Bondra. When he was traded on February 18, 2004 to the Ottawa Senators after spending 14 seasons with the club, fans and management, as well as the player were choked up about it.  It almost seemed an afterthought that the return was a second round draft pick in the 2005 entry draft and a prospect forward by the name of Brooks Laich.*

Ten years later, and Laich is a fixture with the club. Perhaps not to the extent Bondra was, but Laich is widely viewed as a core player for the current edition of the Capitals. Laich, a sixth round pick (193rd overall) of the Senators in the 2001 entry draft, who played four games for the Caps after the trade in 2004, came out from the other side of the 2004-2005 lockout to establish a spot on the roster immediately. With 73 games played for the Caps that season, Laich embarked on a seven-year run in which he missed a total of 22 games, only four in the last five years of that run.

In those last five years of that stretch, from 2007-2008 through 2011-2012, Laich averaged 20-27-47, plus-4 per season. In 2011-2012 he finished 11th in the voting for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward with more votes than Henrik Zetterberg or Jordan Staal.

One thing at which Laich displayed an adept touch during this span was scoring power play goals. In this five-year stretch, Laich was 38th overall in power play goals scored with 38. While this might sound like an unremarkable ranking, it was more power play goals than teammates Nicklas Backstrom (35) and Alexander Semin (34).

Then came the 2012-2013 lockout.  Like many players, Laich decided to play in Europe while the league and the players association worked out their differences.  On September 28, 2012 he signed with the Kloten Flyers in Swiss National League A.  He lasted 19 games (going 6-12-18 in the process) when a groin injury ended his further participation in Swiss hockey.   At the time it appeared as if Laich would miss a week or two at the start of the abbreviated NHL season that started in January.   Instead, it was an injury that bedeviled Laich, the club, and Capitals fans for more than a year.

Laich played in only nine regular season games and no playoff games in that abbreviated 2012-2013 season, recording only one goal and four points.  He was in the lineup to begin the 2013-2014 season, but the uncooperative nature of his injury relentlessly peeled games off his season resume – 11 games in late November and early December, three more in late December, a game in early February, single games on March 6th and 11th.  March 14th would be the last game in which Laich appeared in the 2013-2014 season, playing only 12 minutes in a 4-3 Capitals win over the Vancouver Canucks.  Laich’s season was over after 51 games.  Three days later he was in St. Louis to undergo a surgical procedure to address the injury.

At 31 years of age, Brooks Laich should be in the prime of his career with the Capitals.  Instead, there is uncertainty about his health, whether he will return to being that player he was for a five year stretch before the 2012-2013 lockout, and his role (he could play anywhere from third line center to first line left wing and spots in-between).  He is not a Peter Bondra (who is?), but he has been a very versatile player for the Caps, capable of playing a number of positions and in any situation.  That merits his getting a spot on Team L.

Center: Robert Lang

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 145 games, 51-92-143, plus-14
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 6 games, 2-1-3, plus-3

If I told you that Robert Lang ranked seventh in Washington Capitals history in points per game (minimum: 125 games played with the club), would you believe me?

Well, he doesn’t.  He ranks sixth.  Here’s the list:
  • Dennis Maruk: 1.26
  • Alex Ovechkin: 1.20
  • Jaromir Jagr: 1.06
  • Mike Gartner: 1.04
  • Nicklas Backstrom: 1.00
  • Robert Lang: 0.99

Lang is fourth in assists per game (0.63) with only Adam Oates (0.75), Backstrom (0.74), and Maruk (0.73) ahead of him.  Unfortunately, he did it for only 145 games with the Caps, the last 63 of them played for the 2003-2004 team that was sold for scrap with the idea of rebuilding from the bottom up.

Lang came to the Caps in what, in hindsight, looks like an “in for a dime, in for a dollar” strategy of roster management.  In July 2001 the Caps traded for Pittsburgh Penguin forward Jaromir Jagr and his $10.3 million salary in 2001-2002 (which the Caps promptly extended into a seven year – with an option for an eighth year – deal paying him $11 million a year).  When Jagr had a disappointing (by his standards) first season with the Caps, the club went out and looked for a center to complement him.

Lang was coming off a four-year stretch with Pittsburgh in which he recorded 94 goals and 239 points.  That he was Jagr’s teammate seemed to make him more attractive as a target.  The Caps signed him to a five-year/$25 million contract on the first day of free agency in July 2002.  His first year with the Caps was altogether what might have been expected as far as his numbers went: 23-42-69 while appearing in all 82 games.  That was fine as far as it went, but it did not have the added benefit of improving Jagr’s production, who actually saw a drop in points (from 79 to 77) from his first season with the Caps. 

The following season, Lang was better.  The team, unfortunately, was not.  Washington won two games in October, five in November, and four in December.  Their season was going nowhere.  Meanwhile, Lang was putting up big numbers: nine points (10 games) in October, 22 points (in 14 games, in all of which he recorded points) in November,  nine points (in 14 games) in December.

With the Caps about to embark on a clearance sale of epic proportions, there was the matter of what to do with Lang.  He was at or near the top of the points race.  He was their most productive, and thus most marketable asset. 

The Caps pulled the trigger on a trade on February 27th, with Lang leading the league in points (74 in 63 games).  Washington traded Lang to the Detroit Red Wings for a prospect forward (Tomas Fleischmann), a first round pick in the 2004 entry draft, and a fourth round pick in the 2006 entry draft.

The Red Wings might have been congratulating themselves on not having to part with a roster player in a trade for the league’s leading scorer.  However just four games into his new setting, Lang suffered a rib injury.  He played in only six of the Wings’ last 18 games, going 1-4-5.  The Caps would use their first round draft pick in 2004 to select Mike Green.

He played two more seasons with Detroit, then signed with Chicago as a free agent.  After one season with the Blackhawks, Lang was traded to Montreal for a second round draft pick.  A year later he signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes , the 2009-2010 being his last season in the NHL. 

It took Robert Lang a while to find his scoring groove.  Parts of four seasons in Los Angeles, a few games in Boston, and his early work in Pittsburgh gave little evidence that the seventh round pick of the 1990 entry draft (by the Kings) was going to be a scorer.  But he did find that scoring groove in his later years in Pittsburgh that started the most productive phase of his career, one that included his brief stay in Washington. 

Robert Lang, like Geoff Courtnall a decade before him, was a player traded at the pinnacle of his career due to circumstances (although the circumstances in Lang’s case were not of his doing).  Those circumstances, as was the case with Courtnall, cut short what might have been a long and productive career with the Capitals.  As it was, his performance in his brief stay in Washington still gets him a seat on the Team L bus.

Right Wing: Craig Laughlin

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 428 games, 110-173-283, plus-22
Playoffs (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 27 games, 6-4-10, even

Washington Capitals fans of current vintage know Craig Laughlin only as the smart (if occasionally goofy) sidekick to Joe Beninati in Capitals television broadcasts.  His Canadian-accented nasally voice is instantly recognizable (and no doubt endearing to Caps fans).  What fans of today’s team might not realize is that Laughlin was part of one of the biggest trades, if not the biggest trade in team history.

In July 1982 the Washington Capitals were on the brink of being moved or dissolved.  A “Save the Caps” campaign was begun, and then owner Abe Pollin decided in late August to keep the team in Washington   A week later, the team named David Poile as general manager.  Only 32 years old at the time, he jumped into the job with both feet. 

Barely a week after he was named general manager, Poile trade Ryan Walter and Rick Green – one who was once a second overall draft pick (Walter), the other a first overall draft pick (Green) – to Montreal for Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom, and a former 10th round draft pick of the Canadiens who just wrapped up his rookie season in the NHL: Craig Laughlin.

Laughlin fit right in.  It was not so much his scoring, although that part of his game seemed quite underrated (he finished seventh on the club in scoring in his first season with the Caps, his first full season in the NHL).  He was a hardworking, tight checking sort who harassed players all over the ice.  He would eventually be teamed with Alan Haworth and Greg Adams to become the “Plumbers Line” for their hardworking style of play (and with a nod to the “Plumbers” of the Nixon administration, being a DC team and all).

In Laughlin’s five full seasons in Washington he was one of only five players to record at least 100 goals (he had 105), and he was fourth overall in points over those years (273), behind only Mike Gartner , Bobby Carpenter, and Dave Christian.  Laughlin was third among the Caps over those five seasons in power play goals (38), trailing only Gartner and Carpenter.  He was also remarkably durable over those seasons, missing a total of only 12 games.

In the 1987-1988 season, Laughlin’s production withered, no doubt a product of the effects of knee injury he suffered in the previous spring’s playoff series against the New York Islanders.  He scored two goals in the Caps’ second game of the season, and then he went his next 21 games with just one goal to show for it.  Things did not improve.  Finally, on February 9th, with Laughlin stuck at five goals and ten points in 40 games, he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for Grant Ledyard.  He played out that season with the Kings, then signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs for the 1988-1989 season that would be his last in the NHL.  He played one more season, that with EV Landshut in West Germany before leaving the game at the age of 32 after the 1989-1990 season.

Out of lemons come lemonade, and Laughlin found a recipe for that when he was injured in the Islander playoff series in 1987, getting the broadcasting bug.   That is how most Caps fans probably know and remember him today.  But on some of the best teams in franchise history, Laughlin was a vital element.  He deserves to skate on the right side of Team L.

Defense: Rod Langway

Regular Season (with Capitals): 11 seasons, 726 games, 25-177-202, plus-117
Playoffs (with Capitals): 10 seasons, 78 games, 2-16-18, plus-2

In the first 29 years in which the Norris Trophy was awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman, four defensemen won the award in at least two consecutive years – Doug Harvey, Pierre Pilote, Bobby Orr, and Denis Potvin.  When Rod Langway won the award for the second consecutive year in 1984, he became the fifth defenseman in NHL history to accomplish this feat.

What made Langway’s achievement more impressive is that looking at the post-expansion era of the NHL and the defensemen who won the award at least twice – Orr, Potvin, and Larry Robinson – all of them recorded at least 11 goals in their trophy-winning years, and with the exception of Orr’s first trophy win in 1968, all of them recorded at least 64 points.  In Langway’s two wins he recorded a total of 12 goals and 65 points.

Langway was a defensive defenseman in an extraordinary sense.  That was not all.  He might be the single most important player in franchise history.  The means by which he came to the Caps was by the trade described above.  The Caps were in jeopardy of folding or moving, and shortly after owner Abe Pollin decided to keep the team in Washington, just-hired general manager David Poile made the trade that brought Langway to Washington.

Given the Capitals’ history of poor defense (in their first eight seasons they allowed 4.30 goals per game while the league average was 3.54), Langway was arguably the centerpiece of the trade.  Although he was still only 25 years with four years of NHL experience with the Montreal Canadiens, he finished in the top ten in Norris Trophy voting in each of his last two seasons with the Canadiens, and he was a member of a Stanley Cup winning team in Montreal in 1979.

What he was not was a scorer.  In 11 seasons with the Capitals, Langway never hit the ten-goal mark (he only scored a total of 25 in 11 seasons) and never recorded as many as 35 points in a season.  Nevertheless, he was a “plus” player in each of his first ten seasons in Washington (averaging plus-13).  He might not have been scoring, but opponents weren’t either.

The low scoring output did not lessen the appreciation for his game.  He was a first team all-star twice with the Caps, a second team all-star once, and received all-star team votes in each of his first seven seasons in Washington overall.  In addition to the two Norris Trophies he won, he finished in the top-five on two other occasions.  He finished in the top-five in Hart Trophy voting as the league’s most valuable player three times.

He was also durable, especially given his physical style of play.  In his first seven seasons in Washington, Langway missed only 35 games (five per season).  There was, however, a post-season injury he suffered that had significant impacts on the Capitals’ fortunes.  After a thrilling seven-game win over the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 1988 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps faced the New Jersey Devils in the second round.  Late in the third period of Game 1, what would be a 3-1 Capitals win, Langway and the Devils’ Pat Verbeek were tangled up behind the Capitals’ net.  As Verbeek described it, “I was trying to prevent him from cutting back on me.  I stuck my leg out to keep him from getting position on me.  The toe of my skate cut him in the back of the calf…”  The skate left a three-inch cut to the back of Langway’s leg, and he headed to the bench immediately, trailing blood on the ice all the way.  He was treated, but he had to wear an immobilizing cast for 7-10 days, leaving him unavailable to the Caps for the duration of the series.  The Caps promptly lost Games 2 and 3 by a combined 15-6 margin (the Devils enjoyed 20 power plays over those two games), and the Caps lost the series to New Jersey in seven games.

Langway returned to play in 76 games for the Caps the following season, but the wear and tear on his body started catching up with him in the 1989-1990 season.  He played in only 58 games that season and did not record a goal (strangely, the only season in his career to that point in which he did not score a goal).  In 1990-1991 it was 56 games played.  He rebounded to play in 64 games the next season and record 13 points (his highest point total in three years), but he was not the dominating defenseman of the mid-1980’s.

In early November of the 1992-1993 season, Langway and general manager David Poile met, Poile asking Langway to assume a part-time role with the club.  He played in only 21 games that season, finishing with no points and a minus-13.  The manner in which the game evolved around him was reflected by the fact that in that 1992-1993 season, three other Capitals defensemen – Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, and Sylvain Cote – finished with 20 or more goals.

That was Langway’s last season in the NHL.  After sitting out the 1993-1994 season, he played briefly with the Richmond Renegades of the ECHL, then spent a season with the San Francisco Spiders of the IHL.  In 1997-1998 Langway appeared in ten games for the Providence Bruins of the AHL to close out his professional resume.

Former teammate Craig Laughlin said of Langway, “[He] was the same as Wayne Gretzky, but in a defensive mode… He killed the penalties with the best of them. The way he pinned a guy to the boards…it’s an art. He doesn’t let the guy back into the play.”  Unfortunately, there was no statistic, advanced or otherwise, available back then to reflect that skill.  But to the extent one could trust their eyes, when Langway checked an opponent, he stayed checked.  Rare was the battle along the boards he lost; he was an expert at neutralizing any advance from that spot on the ice.  He was, as we noted above, more than that.  He might be the most consequential Capital in team history, in no small part the reason we still have hockey in Washington.  Team L has its captain and its stopper in Rod Langway.

Defense: Yvon Labre

Regular Season (with Capitals): 7 seasons, 334 games, 12-84-96, minus-89
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

If there has been a hockey player in NHL history to have played under more adversity than Yvon Labre, we’d like to meet him.  Then again, maybe not.  Although he did not play in every game for the Caps and the Pittsburgh Penguins over his nine year career, the teams on which he played had a combined record of 186-412-118.  If you were to convert that to an 82-game season, it’s a record of 21-47-14.

It started for Labre in 1969 when he was taken in the fourth round (38th overall) by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1969 amateur draft.  After a year with the Baltimore Clippers of the AHL, he made the jump to the NHL in 1970-1971, playing in 21 games for the Penguins.  After spending all of two seasons in the minors with the Hershey Bears, Labre saw limited NHL action in the 1973-1974 season – 16 games with Pittsburgh. 

Whatever the Penguins saw in Labre, they were not sufficiently impressed to protect him from exposure in the expansion draft of June 1974.  It was there that his career with the Caps began.  He dressed for 76 games with the Caps in his first full NHL season, and laboring for the worst team in NHL history (8-67-5), he finished fourth on the club (first among defensemen) in scoring with 27 points.  He also led the team in penalty minutes by a wide margin – 182 minutes to Mike Bloom’s 84.

Labre played in all 80 games the following season, once more topping 20 points (2-20-22).  That, however, might have been the pinnacle of his Caps’ career.  Knee problems started to eat into his playing time.  He would play in only 178 of 400 games over the next five seasons, but he was still as tough a player (428 penalty minutes in those 178 games) as he was in those first two seasons with the club.

Unfortunately, his hard work and dedication was not rewarded.  In none of his seven seasons with the Capitals did they make the playoffs, only twice did they win more than 25 games.

In 1980-1981 injuries limited Labre to 25 games.  It would be his last in the NHL.  Still, he would be the last of the inaugural 1974-1975 team to skate for the club.   His effort in the face of misfortune was not unappreciated.  In November 1981 Labre had his number “7” retired by the club, the first of four numbers to be retired by the Caps.  The team would not retire another number for more than 16 years.

Stars and winners get a lot of ink and a lot of accolades.  But in his own way, Yvon Labre was both for this franchise, the embodiment of what being a professional means.  He has a special place on Team L.

Goaltender: Mike Liut

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 64 games, 27-27-5, 3.51, .871
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 11 games, 4-5, 3.46, .874

By the time Mike Liut pulled on a Capitals sweater he already built a resume as one of the top goalies in the league, having won 267 games over 12-plus seasons with the St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers.  His resume included a first team all-star berth, a second-team all-star spot, a Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award) as the league’s outstanding player, and six top-ten finishes in the voting for the Vezina Trophy.  In 1981 he finished second to Wayne Gretzky for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

He arrived in Washington in March 1990 in a trade that sent Yvon Corriveau to Hartford.  He had a fine home stretch that season for the Caps in terms of his own play (2.13 goal against average, .922 save percentage), although he didn’t have much luck, a 4-4-0 record in eight appearances.  He matched that 4-4 record in the post season as the Caps advanced to the conference final for the first time in franchise history.

Things took a bumpy road after that for Liut.  In 1990-1991 he appeared in 35 games but had just a 13-16-3 record.  His 3.73 goals against average was among the worst of his career.  Things were not any better the following season.  Stubborn back problems limited him to 21 appearances in which he was 10-7-2 with a 3.74 goals against average.  His last appearance in that 1991-1992 season was on February 4th against the Buffalo Sabres, one in which he allowed seven goals on 43 shots.  It was the second time in five appearances in which he allowed seven goals and it completed a consecutive games total of 12 goals on 67 shots.  He might have been willing, but his body was betraying him.  It was his last season in the NHL.

Mike Liut came to the Caps to provide a measure of stability and steady production in goal that seemed lacking with the club.  It was often said that it was goaltending that failed the Caps in the end in the 1980’s when they never could seem to get over the hump of the first or second round of the playoffs.  Liut might have provided that – he did play on that first ever conference finals club – but physically the tank was running low.  Still, he did make contributions to those clubs of the early 1990s and gets the call in goal for Team L.

Team L certainly has both an old school and a new school look to it, reaching back to the early days of the franchise and some of its best days while adding some punch from teams of more recent vintage.  There is a grittiness and toughness about this team that others would find difficult to play against.  They would, in their own way, be pretty entertaining to watch.

* In one of the more bizarre turns of this tale, Bondra was offered a contract in the late summer of 2005 by the Capitals after his contract with the Senators (originally signed as a Capital) ran out after the 2003-2004 season. The team was reported to have offered Bondra a one-year deal at $1.5 million; Bondra countered with a proposal for an additional year and more money.  The teams were not able to agree on terms of a deal, and Bondra signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Thrashers.