Tuesday, February 13, 2007

It's all about the kids . . .

Perusing the Caps blogs in wake of the injury sustained by goaltender Olaf Kolzig yesterday, The Peerless notes that Caps Nut steps away from his usual ascerbic take on things to paint a reasonable picture of what we might look forward to, and JP takes up the theme in his offering on the matter.

What does that mean for this club in the here and now?

Well, here is the cold truth to dispense with right now . . . the Caps have 25 games to play, and if Kolzig were to miss precisely the three weeks forecast in yesterday’s stories, he’d miss nine games:

@Tampa Bay
San Jose
@New Jersey
New Jersey
Tampa Bay
NY Islanders

Objectively, you’d have to think the Caps would be underdogs in each of those games, eight of which are against playoff clubs or playoff hopefuls, and one against a club the Caps can’t beat to save their season lately. But let’s say the Caps do break even in that stretch. That would still leave them with 63 points and 16 games to play upon Kolzig’s return. Using last year as a benchmark, when Tampa Bay secured the last spot in the East with 92 points, the Caps would need 29 points in their last 16 games – a 148-point pace over a whole season – to get the eighth spot.

Not looking good.

The competitive part of the season (unless you’re actually a player) is over. From here on out, it’s about the kids. There is no good reason from the big club’s perspective to sending guys like Eric Fehr or Jeff Schultz back down to Hershey, unless it’s for the AHL playoffs. Fehr has averaged 10:32 in ice time a night in his ten-game stint. Schultz – 17:57. Milan Jurcina – 23:11 in five games since coming over from Boston. Boyd Gordon has been given more responsibility as the season has worn on (out of necessity) but is still averaging only 15 minutes a night. Brooks Laich is averaging about 12-and-a-half.

Getting these guys minutes, and even bringing up guys like Chris Bourque, Tomas Fleischmann, Alexandre Giroux, Jakub Klepis, and Maxime Daigneault for a few games, could be important for the club the Caps ice next year much more than the “growing pains” club would endure for icing such a club for the remainder of this year.

This isn’t like 2003-2004, when the Caps threw together a rag-tag, spare parts club to finish the year. With apologies to the likes of Brad Norton, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Roman Tvrdon, and the like, but the club that finished the year was the hockey equivalent of the “mop-up” reliever in baseball. That club was playing out the string.

This is – as Caps Nut and JP suggest – an opportunity or even a “blessing.” It might be a bit painful to endure for the moment, but the NHL is chock full of examples of clubs that endured growing pains reflected in the standings only to become contenders in the years that followed – Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and (as much as it pains The Peerless to say) perhaps even Pittsburgh.

Last year, we got a flavor for who could play at the AHL level as the Bears won the Calder Cup. Over the last 25 games, we might get a clearer picture of who can play the game at this level. That can’t be a bad thing . . .

“Things turn out best for people who make the best out of the way things turn out” -- John Wooden