Monday, December 22, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 8

Number 8. The Seamless System

A little over a year ago, Boyd Gordon suffered an injury – a fractured hand. The Capitals needed to turn to someone to fill the role of a defensive-oriented forward. Quintin Laing – almost four years removed from a spot on an NHL roster – was called up from the Hershey Bears and in his first game in a Capitals uniform blocked four shots in a 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes (he was not on the ice for any of the four Hurricane goals). The next night he blocked four more in a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers. Laing would play 39 games for the Caps, and while he did not put up a lot of points (1-5-6), he was that defensive forward the club needed. In 39 games he was a shot-blocking machine – 52 in all, which left him 23rd in the league among forwards in that statistic and one of only two forwards in the top 50 to average more than one per game. He also finished a plus-4 to finish a respectable (given he played less than half the season with the big club) ninth on the team.

At the other end of the developmental spectrum, Tomas Flesichmann – a man who had to play his way into a contract, despite putting up some impressive numbers for the Bears as a prospect in the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons – netted a career high ten goals in 75 games. If you’ve been watching so far this year, you know that Fleischmann has already eclipsed that mark with 11 goals in 31 games, good for third on the team.

Players have to come from somewhere. Oh sure, you could draft an Alex Ovechkin and have him slide right into the starting lineup and have him producing right away (the year’s hiatus from a lockout notwithstanding). But for mere mortals, there is generally the need for an apprenticeship to be served before securing a roster spot with the parent club. Last year, folks got an inkling of what that means with the play of a Quintin Laing and got a glimpse of what it can mean in a player’s development with the results of a Tomas Fleischmann.

For the Capitals, success is built – quite literally – on the foundation of a solid minor league partnership with the Hershey Bears of the AHL and South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. In the two-plus seasons of the partnership between the Capitals and Bears, no fewer than 11 players who have dressed for the Caps this year have spent at least half of a full season in Hershey:

Mike Green
Tomas Fleischmann
David Steckel
Eric Fehr
Boyd Gordon
Jeff Schultz
Tyler Sloan
Sami Lepisto
Alexandre Giroux (with a stop with the Chicago Wolves along the way)
Chris Bourque
Graham Mink (with a stop in Worcester thrown in)

To that list one can add this season's call ups: Karl Alzner, Sean Collins, Bryan Helmer, Oskar Osala, Simeon Varlamov, and Keith Aucoin – a group that runs the gamut of NHL experience, but all of whom were in their first full year with the Bears when called up. In all, more than half of the Caps who dressed for games this year have spent substantial time in Hershey.

And, of course, there is the coach – Bruce Boudreau – who coached many of these players to a Calder Cup championship and Calder final in his two full years behind the Hershey bench. His record of 96-30-20 at Hershey, in addition to his playoff success, instilled a winning attitude and experience for those kids (and veterans) who would rise to the parent club or otherwise be called upon as an emergency replacement.

Hershey is not merely close in proximity – only a couple of hours up the road – but a virtual clone of the Capitals in design and philosophy. The Caps have a prolific offense that plays a high-tempo game based on skating and puck movement among all of their players. Hershey leads the entire AHL in scoring and has its best record, despite all of the call ups to Washington, based on the same approach.

The relationship has matured to a point where, if need be, the Capitals need not merely summon a warm body to replace an injured player, but can look to the type of player injured and who among the Bears would be a “best fit” to fill that position. That was on display last year when Laing filled in for a missing Gordon. One could see it this year with the variety of players called upon to fill in for an injured Cap. It might be Sami Lepisto on the blue line on one occasion, Sean Collins on another, depending on the situation.

Philosophy also is on display on the developmental side of the equation. The Hershey-Washington relationship looks like a conveyor belt of talent. It allows a Bourque or a Lepisto or an Alzner to step into a situation that is familiar to them in terms of system and allows them to play to their skills and experiences more so than perhaps might be the case in another organization. While there might be the shock of playing the game at a higher tempo than might be the case in the AHL, these players do not have to face the necessity to acclimatize oneself to the situation with respect to the style and system of hockey played.

One can go back to the development camps held in the summer and early training camp sessions to see the “holistic” approach on display. It is a matter of instilling the “Capitals Way” of playing much in the same fashion the Baltimore Orioles of major league baseball (once upon a time, anyway) had “The Oriole Way” of playing baseball. In those camps, one could see them as teaching moments – a lot of hands on work by the entire coaching staff, those representing the Capitals and those in Washington from Hershey to work the sessions. Part of this might be fortuitous, in that the leader of the group – Bruce Boudreau – is a product of Hershey, but “fortuitous” also means “happening by a fortunate chance” (in this case, the need to move in another direction last year through a change in coaches).

In 2008, one of the top stories for the Capitals is that they have taken advantage of that “chance” to further develop a seamless system between the philosophies of the parent club and the farm club and integrate it into the broader plan for the club as it seeks a Stanley Cup.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have now whetted my appetite for seven more important stories than this one, since I feel that the Washington-Hershey Expressway may be the most important development for the Caps in the last year. It is simply astonishing that guys like Helmer and Collins -- guys who are not part of conversation regarding long-term prospects -- can come to DC and play like they belong.