Monday, September 28, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: On the Bubble

With 18 forwards on the roster going into the weekend, there are still cuts to be made among that group. Injuries that are likely to keep Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann on injured reserve to start the year mean that there are two roster spots available for players on the bubble. But we still have the matter of four forwards fighting for what appear to be two roster spots, assuming the Caps carry 14 forwards. Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin, and Quintin Laing are the principals in that battle.

The other two forwards not guaranteed roster spots – Brandon Sugden and Michael Nylander – are highly unlikely to start the year in Washington, but for different reasons. Sugden would appear to be ticketed to Hershey as the club’s enforcer. Nylander is ticketed for… well, somewhere else. Where that will be is still something of a mystery, but the hints are being dropped that something will happen in the next day or two.

So let’s go back to those four players – Giroux, Bourque, Aucoin, and Laing. Bourque is the only one of this group who could be called a “prospect” at this point in his career. He has played a total of 12 NHL games over the past two seasons, registering one goal for his cups o’ coffee with the club. He could be considered in the mix to secure one of the two open forward slots (that is, not encumbered by Fehr or Fleischmann upon their return). He has played at a high energy level in the preseason and has given the effort commensurate with a youngster who knows that he has an opening to shoot for. Missing a couple of pre-season games cut into his opportunities to impress, but he’s made the best of what could have been a difficult situation, coming back yesterday with a solid effort in 14 minutes against the Rangers. The absence of Fehr and Fleischmann is the opening Bourque needs – a few extra opportunities, perhaps, that were missed when he missed those other pre-season games.

Laing is more of a known quantity in both his strengths and weaknesses. In 43 games in the NHL (40 with the Caps), he has one goal (for the record, a game-winner against the Devils in December 2007). Offense will neither get him, nor keep him in the league. But he will block shots (53 in 40 games with the Caps, an 82-game pace of 109 that would have led the league by far among forwards last year). And he will give himself up to make a play, evidenced by his suffering a serious injury to his spleen in his lone game with the Caps last year, then making it back to skate in nine Calder Cup playoff games with Hershey, including the Cup-clinching win in Manitoba. What Laing brings to the party is something you can’t really teach – a player has it, or he doesn’t. And coaches love the things Laing brings. Chances are, Laing would be on the roster on opening night in any case. A couple of roster spots freeing up early gives him just a little more opportunity to show those unheralded (at least by fans) gifts.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alexandre Giroux, who remains a mystery. How could a player who scored 60 goals in 69 regular season games last year in Hershey, plus another 15 in 22 Calder Cup playoff games, look so lost and incapable of scoring at this level? In 22 career regular season games in the NHL (all but one with the Caps), Giroux has three goals (all with Washington). He scored on his first shot of the preseason – against Buffalo – but has been off the score sheet in three other games since, registering a 1-0-1, even line in four preseason games. It seems unlikely in the extreme that Giroux would have a roster spot on this team on opening night if Fehr or Fleischmann were healthy. Getting four preseason games worth of opportunities is as much as anyone could have asked for in this abbreviated pre-season, and his not getting a sweater for yesterday’s game against the Rangers was revealing. Unless he finds some magic, and right quick, he has a locker waiting for him in Hershey.

That leaves Keith Aucoin, who is the most “NHL-ready” of these four players. He has 65 games of NHL experience (12 with Washington last year). Does that give him a leg up on the competition? Well, he notched a pair of goals in his three preseason games of work (the Caps lost both games), but the question would appear to be whether he is sturdy enough to stick on a club that already has offensive talent on the top two lines, but needs some sandpaper on the other two. In a way, Aucoin is an older (30 years old) version of Bourque (23) – a player of smallish stature (Aucoin is listed at 5’9”, 187; Bourque at 5’7”, 181), who can play center or wing, who plays at a high energy level. In this case, a tie might go to the younger player.

There is no escaping the decision that eventually, two of these players will stay, and two will go. Given the Caps’ needs, we’re thinking that it will be Laing and Bourque who get to stick around.

But like we said, we’re glad we don’t have to make these decisions.

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