Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Peerless' Preview, Part I

Previews tend to have a regular format. You get a run down of the new faces, the departed ones, the “players to watch,” the players who are “on the bubble,” and then some discussion (usually optimistic, if the preview is written by one who follows or works for the home club). That’s not a bad way to go, and some folks do it really, really well.

The Peerless chooses to go a different route in looking at the Caps as we move through training camp. As we embark on the new season, we’re doing Shakespeare . . .

“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'”

Well, maybe Glen, George, and Ted (and Caps fans)...

"A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!"
--King Richard III (V, iv, 7)

That horse, of course, is Alex Ovechkin. It is a measure of the esteem in which the youngster is held that a 46-46-92 season can be characterized in some quarters as “disappointing.” Maybe Ovechkin shares that view. Tarik El-Bashir quotes Ovechkin in today’s Post that he is “hungry for hockey.” Further, Ovechkin sees himself as in better condition this year than last, a product of skating, training, and practice with his former Moscow Dynamo team. This is not a good sign for the rest of the league. The Peerless has an observation about he with whom Ovechkin is always compared. Sidney Crosby lost in the Calder Trophy voting by a landslide in 2006. He came back the next year with a vengeance, establishing himself as the best player in the NHL. Signs point to this being a similar year for Ovechkin. With the tools provided him by George McPhee – Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, and Tom Poti (who should provide some needed assistance on the power play), Ovechkin might have the room to rumble. And as Caps fans have seen, a dedicated and focused Ovechkin is a force of nature. He is the horse the Caps’ will ride.

"Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous."

--Julius Caesar (I, ii, 194)

Although the quote reflects Caesar’s mistrust of Cassius, the meaning here applies to Olaf Kolzig. The veteran goaltender is the leader of this team, and he’s been displaying that trait in the unofficial practices he and some of the other Caps have held in advance of the start of training camp. It is a sign...Kolzig, who has been through the good and the bad, sees this season as an opportunity not to be lost. The Caps have playoff potential, and it will take hard work – to affect a lean and hungry look – to bring that possibility to fruition. Kolzig has played a lot of minutes in the NHL, and has noted that the offseason conditioning is harder and harder to attend to as time passes. But if Kolzig is paying the price, it is a sign to the rest of this club to follow. And such men can be dangerous.

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on..."

--The Tempest (IV, i, 156-157)

There are young Caps who have a very real chance to make the club out of camp. None would b e a bigger story than Francois Bouchard. Bouchard, a second round pick in 2006 (35th overall) and brother of Pierre-Marc Bouchard of the Wild, has one of those opportunities born of misfortune. Eric Fehr seems not to be ready to test his injury (back, hip, pituitary gland – the club isn’t very forthcoming on such things), and this opens up the race for a spot on the right side. Viktor Kozlov and Chris Clark might now be the odds-on choices to man the right side on the first and second line, but there is the potential for a newcomer to force the club to write his name into the lineup in one of those two spots. Bouchard seems likely not to make the club out of camp, but his progress through juniors has been steady and significant:

2004-05: 54 games, 11-13-24
2005-06: 69 games, 33-69-102
2006-07: 68 games, 45-80-125

Down the road, he could be the scoring right wing the Capitals need. He could be that by the end of the month. Such is the stuff dreams are made on.

"I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."

--Julius Caesar (III, i, 60 – 62)

“Constant as the northern star” is an apt description for Chris Clark. He could play on the right side on any of the top three lines. But Clark brings a singular devotion to the task, whatever responsibility he is asked to assume. It goes without saying – although it needs to be said over and over – that Clark was and is an excellent choice as captain, a worthy successor to the tradition of captains such as Rod Langway and Dale Hunter. Where Clark plays could be a function of how others fare in training camp. If Nicklas Backstrom isn’t ready to center the second line and is moved to the right side, Viktor Kozlov might be a center option, and Clark could be on either of the top two lines on the right side. If a youngster such as Bouchard or even a Tomas Fleischmann or Eric Fehr (if he is healthy) breaks through, Clark could man the right side on the third line. Wherever he plays, and he might be asked to move around, Clark’s effort will be as constant as the northern star.

"Is this a dagger which I see before me..."

--Macbeth (II, i, 33)

Alexander Semin scored 38 goals last year. Everyone ahead of him is older (ok, Thomas Vanek is six weeks older). That qualified as a breakthrough season for Semin and establishes him as a sniper of the first order...or does it? It is one thing to do it once, it is another to do it again. That is the task for Semin this year. He might start the year centered by Nicklas Backstrom, and how the rookie progresses in that role could go a long way in determining what numbers Semin is able to put up. There is also the matter of Semin’s own play. While supremely talented as a shooter and a puck handler, there were times last season when his maturity might have been called into question. That side of his game needs to progress more. But the pieces are there for him to be a feared offensive player on a level with Alex Ovechkin. What we don’t know is whether he can maintain or improve upon last year’s performance on the ice, whether this is a dagger we see before us...

"Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind."

--A Midsummer Night's Dream (I, i, 234)

The word “fan” is slang for “fanatic.” A little – and sometimes a lot of – craziness goes with the territory. There is sometimes a tendency to overrate one’s own players, and Caps fans (this one included) is not immune from the disease. That is prelude to this observation....the Caps might not be a “good” team to start the year. They are bringing in a lot of new pieces, some from different organizations – Nylander, Kozlov, Poti -- and possibly some rookies such as Bouchard, Fehr, Fleischmann, Alzner, and others. Sometimes a dish tastes better as the flavors are allowed to meld. This will almost certainly be a better team – in fact, a much better team – in February than it will be in October. Caps fans might keep that in mind as the year begins. Stanley Cups are not won in October, and the playoff teams aren’t identified before Christmas.

That’s all for now....we’ll return to this over the next few days and weeks as we get ready for the season opener, and The Peerless settles on his season prognostications.

Happy Training Camp!

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