We're back with another installment of the Caps preview, and again, Bill Shakespeare is our guide...
"Delays have dangerous ends"
-- King Henry the Sixth, Part I (I, iii)
Brian Sutherby seems to have been a Cap since they wore the star-spangled red-white-and-blue uniforms. It’s hard to imagine that he has barely 250 games of NHL experience (254, actually). But the former first rounder (2000), who had been spoken of in the past as potential captain material, is now finding himself as part of a much deeper roster, talent-wise, than has been the case earlier in his career. On the 2007-2008 squad, he is likely to start the year as a fourth-line forward, which is not the career trajectory foreseen for him.
Hampered by persistent injuries early in his career, he has arrived at the cruel crossroads of sports. He has to raise his performance level above the 8-11-19, -5, 82-game composite average he’s posted thus far in his short career. If not, the Caps are in a position to have others take his place in the lineup. There is much to like about his game. He plays with an edge, he is physical, and despite the plus-minus numbers (his being one of a number of minus-side numbers over the past few years) he gives evidence of being a defensively-responsible player.
He has not, however, shown anything more than glimpses of an offensive game. That will not be a requirement for his role as a third/fourth line player, but if he was truly a shut-down forward, he’d probably be showing up on the third line. For the moment, that group looks like Matt Pettinger, Boyd Gordon, and Chris Clark. Only Donald Brashear has a spot locked up on the fourth line. Sutherby is fighting with Matt Bradley, Ben Clymer, Jakub Klepis, Brooks Laich, and Dave Steckel for the other two slots or perhaps a healthy-scratch roster spot. Klepis, who does not have a contract, has to be thought of as a long-shot to make the roster at this point. If the Caps carry only 13 forwards, then four guys are essentially fighting for three spots (the two fourth line openings and the extra forward). Sutherby might not be the longest shot of that group (we’d have to think Matt Bradley is), but it is an uncomfortable situation for one to be in. Stepping up his game is at hand – a need borne out of the Caps improving the quality of their roster. Any delays are likely to have dangerous ends.
"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them"
-- Twelfth Night (II, v)
Last year at this time, Tomas Fleischmann was stuck among a clot of forwards – with Eric Fehr, Chris Bourque, Jakub Klepis – given a chance to make the big roster. None, including Fleischmann, were up to the task and spent large portions of the year in Hershey. Fleischmann had 29 games in the show, but had a somewhat nondescript 4-4-8, -6 for his efforts. He was starting to look like trade bait, perhaps part of a package to bring in a more seasoned right wing or a defenseman.
Then something happened in September. He was stuck on a line with Alexander Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov. He hardly embarrassed himself. In fact, having come to camp without a contract, he appears to have played himself onto the right side of one of the scoring lines. The talent has been there – he has dominated at the AHL level – but sometimes it appeared as though he lacked a certain confidence in his play on the ice. Having been thrust into a responsible role in the pre-season, he has made the most of his opportunity. No doubt there will be some growing pains along the way when the games are played for real, but Fleischmann is one of those players that gives rise to our prognostication that the Caps will be a much better team late in 2007-2008 than they will be early. His puck-handling ability and passing are already of NHL-caliber. Whether he can score with any consistency, and whether he can fulfill his defensive responsibilities are as yet unanswered questions. But, the tools are there…maybe he just needs not to be afraid of greatness.
"Men of few words are the best men"
-- King Henry V (III, ii)
If Boyd Gordon has uttered two dozen words for public consumption this month, it’d be news to us. That’s not a bad thing. Gordon, with quiet persistence, has risen through the ranks to become the apparent checking line center for opening night. His game is the thing. “Muffin” might not have the most fearsome shot in the league, but that’s not what his primary role is going to be, either. He led the club in plus-minus last year, led the club in draws taken (winning 52 percent of them), led all forwards in blocked shots. He does the little things the right way.
And it is not as if his game is entirely bereft of offense. He had 38 goals in 181 career AHL games and 77 goals in 260 games in junior. That he might become a 15-20 goal scorer in the mold of a Kelly Miller is not farfetched. It might not be this year, but there is no reason to expect he will not someday reach that level.
There is more an earnestness than a flash to Gordon’s game – a consistency of effort (for example, he had only 14 games on the minus side of the ledger in 71 games played last year) – and for his role that is entirely appropriate.
"The course of true love never did run smooth."
-- A Midsummer Night's Dream (I, i)
Nicklas Backstrom was the fourth pick overall in 2006 and anointed as the second coming of center and hall-of-famer-to-be Peter Forsberg before he ever set foot in North America. He is likely to start the season on the right wing of the “second” line. It’s not a bad place to start…honest. He will have a solid pro of a center in Michael Nylander to mentor him, and he’ll have a genuine sniper on the left side in Alexander Semin to feed pucks to. All things considered, it is probably where a youngster in his position is likely to flourish best.
It is all likely to be prelude to his becoming the top line center down the road (perhaps next year, more likely after that), which is to say that the course toward his ultimate destination might not be rocky, but neither will it be smooth. Talented though he is, he has much to learn in terms of the style and geometry of the North American game, and he has to do all this while learning the language and lifestyle off the ice in North America.
If anything, Backstrom has shown a knack for rising to the occasion. His performance in rookie camp was uneven, as if we was merely feeling his way along. In early training camp he looked better, but he seems to have been saving better performances for games in the pre-season. Even in a game in which he, by his own admission, did not play especially well, he netted the game winning goal. If that attribute carries over into the regular season, then whether he plays at center or on the wing will hardly matter. He’ll be playing in the spring.
"Men at some time are masters of their fate"
-- Julius Caesar (I, ii)
Edmonton…Washington…Edmonton…Washington. Sorry, Kevin…Washington. The Rangers might have signed the marquee centers of the free agent period – Scott Gomez and Chris Drury – but the Caps might have signed the best fit. With two top goal scorers in the Alexes and a center-in-waiting in Nicklas Backstrom, Michael Nylander – by temperament and style – might have been the best fit for a center. Nylander is adept at the puck possession game the Caps long to play, he is a fine set-up man (113 assists the past two years), and is a capable power play element (led the Rangers and finished tied for 16th – with Alexander Ovechkin – in league power play scoring). All are attributes the Caps lacked last year, especially from the center position.
Although the presence of Jaromir Jagr added to his offensive numbers (no, really), he might benefit from a cleaner division of responsibility with the Capitals. In New York, the puck goes through Jagr. Nylander, being a puck-possession sort himself, had to play a support role in that aspect. In Washington, he’s going to have a pure goal scorer on his left side (one of the Alexes), and he is likely to have a youngster (Backstrom) on the wing learning a role that Nylander can teach. Nylander will be the conductor.
Nylander hasn’t had less than 50 points in a full season (at least 65 games) in a decade, and much of that was as part of teams that struggled. He should be a constant on the Caps this year, a team of his choosing to join.
“In such business, action is eloquence”
-- Coriolanus (III, ii)
Night after night last year, chances are that the top forwards on opposing teams were going to be met by Shaone Morrisonn. That he would be a plus-three on a club with as many defensive holes as the Caps had last year (he led all Caps defensemen who played at least half of the schedule) is testimony to his ability to defend in his own end. It is even more remarkable in that Morrisonn has less than three full seasons of NHL experience (202 games, coming into this season), and he has never been a minus player in any of the four NHL seasons he’s played in (shoot, going back to juniors, he’s had only two minus years in eight seasons).
Morrisonn is not a big hitter. He is more the rangy sort who can deny space, use his stick, and position himself to frustrate opponents (critics of Jeff Schultz, take note). But he does have an edge to his game, having dropped the mitts in bouts with Colton Orr and Raffi Torres last year, and accumulating 106 PIMS, second on the team to Donald Brashear (fans of Jeff Schultz, take note).
It’s hard to get a clear picture on what the defensive pairings will be for the Caps this year. Any of the blueliners could be paired with any other. But no matter where Morrisonn is paired, his action in his own end has been, and promises to continue to be, eloquence.
We have some more to cover, and we’ll try to get to that in the coming week, as well as the league and Caps prognostications for the year. In the meantime…
"The elements be kind to thee, and make thy spirits all of comfort: fare thee well!"
-- Antony and Cleopatra (III, ii)