Thursday, September 04, 2014

Washington Capitals: All-Franchise Teams by the Alphabet -- Team Z

We have come to the end of the alphabet.  Not necessarily the end of our Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Teams, just the end of the alphabet.  With Team Z we find some zip, some zing, and some razzmatazz. 

Left Wing: Dainius Zubrus

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 331 games, 86-130-216, minus-13
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 12 games, 2-2-4, minus-1

Dainius Zubrus was the 15th overall selection of the 1996 entry draft, taken by the Philadelphia Flyers.  No player taken in that draft has played in more regular season games than the 1,169 contests in which Zubrus has played.

It started in Philadelphia, where Zubrus played for three-plus seasons, then in Montreal, where he played in parts of another three seasons.  In March 2001 he came to Washington in one of the more important trades since the turn of the century.  Zubrus was traded with Trevor Linden and a second round pick in the 2001 entry draft for Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis, and a first round pick in the 2001 entry draft.

Zubrus was coming to a team on a roll.  The Caps were 17-2-2-1 in the 22 games leading up to trade and jumped out to a 15-point lead in the Southeast Division.  Maybe it was upsetting the delicate chemistry of a team, maybe it was a misevaluation of talent, maybe it was just bad luck, but the Caps finished the season 4-7-0-2 after the trade and dropped their opening round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.

Linden was traded to Vancouver the following November, but Zubrus remained.  He spent parts of six seasons in Washington and pretty much saw it all.  There was the stalled momentum of the 2000-2001 season after he arrived, and he was without a point in the six game opening round playoff series that the Caps lost to Pittsburgh.  Not the best way to curry favor with the new fan base. 

The Caps missed the playoffs altogether in Zubrus’ second season with the club, although his 17-26-43 scoring line (sixth on the club) was a career best to date in total points and not bad for a 23-year old.  He slipped a bit in 2002-2003 (13-22-35 in 63 games), with a disappointing return to the playoffs for the Caps, and in 2003-2004 (12-15-27 in 54 games) a period of upheaval as the Caps began the heavy lifting to retool their roster.

After the Caps and the NHL came out of the 2004-2005 lockout, Zubrus’ role on the club changed some.  As a 27-year old with eight seasons of NHL experience, he became one of the veterans on whom a young team (16 players dressing that season younger than 25) would depend.  Zubrus responded.  Given first line responsibilities to ride shotgun with rookie winger Alex Ovechkin, Zubrus set career highs in goals (23), assists, and points (57).

The following season was a walk year for Zubrus; he would be an unrestricted free agent after the 2006-2007.  While he was having a season that was on pace to surpass the career marks he set in 2005-2006, he and the team were unable to agree on terms of along term deal.  It became a familiar case of a team having to choose between the potential of finding agreement later or risk losing the player with no return.  The Caps chose to trade Zubrus and defenseman Timo Helbling to the Buffalo Sabres for forward Jiri Novotny and a first round pick in the 2007 entry draft. 

Zubrus spent the remainder of the season with the Sabres, finishing the 2006-2007 season with what were (and remain) career bests in goals (24), assists (36) and points (60).  He signed as a free agent with the New Jersey Devils, where has been the last seven years.

Dainius Zubrus occupied that transitional period in which the Capitals went from playoff team to rebuild to the cusp of competitiveness once more.  He was productive on a club that was finding itself on its way to a string of playoff years that ended last year.   For that he has a place on Team Z.

Center: Peter Zezel

Regular Season (with Capitals): 1 season, 20 games, 7-5-12, minus-13
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

By the time Peter Zezel came to the Washington Capitals in 1990, he had shown himself to be a solid point producer with the Philadelphia Flyers (who drafted him in the second round of the 1983 entry draft) and St. Louis Blues. In six seasons with the Flyers and Blues he averaged 22 goals and 64 points a season.

Zezel came to the Capitals in July 1990 with Mike Lalor in exchange for Geoff Courtnall.  He got off to a good start in the 1990-1991 season with goals in his first three games with the Caps and five in his first 13 games.  An ankle injury sidelined him for 23 games during which the Caps were 11-11-1.  Zezel returned to the lineup on December 22nd, but his ankle was not cooperating.  He appeared in only seven of the next ten games, recording a pair of goals. 

However, with the season passing its half-way point, the team was having trouble getting traction after having appeared in the Wales Conference finals the previous spring.  When the Caps lost to the St. Louis Blues by a 7-3 score on January 15th, the Caps were 21-24-2 and in fifth place in the six-team Patrick Division.

It was at that point that Zezel’s career with the Caps came to an abrupt end.  On January 16th the Caps traded Zezel to the Toronto Maple Leafs with defenseman Bob Rouse for defenseman Al Iafrate, a player who wanted to and was happy to leave Toronto

The Caps recovered to go 16-12-5 down the stretch and finish third in the Patrick Division, good for a playoff berth.  As for Zezel, he had a fine finish, too, going 14-14-28 in 32 games with the Leafs.  Zezel would play another eight seasons in the NHL with the Maple Leafs, the Dallas Stars, the Blues once more, the New Jersey Devils, and the Vancouver Canucks.  In 1999, he requested a trade to an Eastern Conference team to be closer to his niece, who was terminally ill.  The Leafs traded him instead to the Anaheim Ducks for a late round draft pick.  Zezel declined to report to Anaheim.

Zezel passed away in May 2009 of a blood disorder.  He finished his NHL career with 873 games played and 219 goals.  Only 20 of those games played and seven of those goals were scored in a Capitals uniform, but Peter Zezel gets a spot on Team Z.

Right Wing: Richard Zednik

Regular Season (with Capitals): 7 seasons, 289 games, 69-65-134, minus-13
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 22 games, 7-3-10, even

For a time, there might not have been a Washington Capital with as fierce a following as Richard Zednik.  So much that he had his own “night” while still a member of the club.  On Hallowe’en night 2000 a local radio station sponsored a promotion win which fans received free tickets and a player jersey if they bleached their hair in the same blond fashion that Zednik was sporting at the time.  In return, Zednik treated his fans to a hat trick in a 6-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

As for Zednik the player, his “night” came in what was his fifth season with the club.  He was a tenth round pick (249th overall) in the 1994 entry draft from SK Iskra Banska Bystrica in Sloakia.  After being drafted by the Caps he spent two seasons playing with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL (and one game in his NHL debut with the Caps in 1995-1996).  His pro career began in earnest with the 1996-1997 season in which he split time between the Capitals (11 games) and the Portland Pirates in the AHL (56 games).

In his rookie season of 1997-1998 Zednik finished third among rookies in goals (17, including the first goal scored at the Caps’ new MCI Center) and seventh in Calder Trophy voting for the NHL’s top rookie.  He followed the regular season up tying for the team lead in goal scoring (7) in the Caps’ advance to the Stanley Cup final.

Injuries delayed Zednik’s development in the 1998-1999 season, limiting him to just 49 games in which he scored only nine goals for a team that missed the playoffs.  That performance seemed to stall his development.  In 1999-2000 he started the season with just one goal in his first 16 games.  He did recover to score 19 goals in 69 games, but it was not the arc of progress one might have hoped for the 24-year old in his third full season. 

In 2000-2001, he started slow once more.  He did have the hat trick on his night on Hallowe’en, but otherwise he had just three goals in 32 games for a total of six in his first 33 contests of the season.  At that point he and the Caps gathered momentum.  Over the next 32 games the Caps went 21-7-3-1, culminating in a thrilling come-from-behind 6-5 win over the Ottawa Senators on March 11th.  Over that span of games, Zednik recorded ten goals. 

The Caps were pulling away in the Southeast Division race with a 37-20-10-2 record, 15 points ahead of Carolina in the division.  There was the question, though, whether the team was configured for a deep playoff run.  The Caps opted to add experience and pulled the trigger on a trade with the Montreal Canadiens, sending Zednik, another youngster, Jan Bulis, and a first round pick in the 2001 entry draft to Montreal for Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus, and a second round pick int he2001 draft.

For the Caps, the trade simply did not work.  They stumbled to a 4-7-0-2 finish and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. 

For Zednik the rest of the year was unremarkable – three goals in 12 games for a team that did not qualify for the post-season.  The following season, though, he recorded his first 20-goal season (22 in 82 games, the first time he appeared in every season game).  It started a four season run over which he scored 95 goals, including what would be a career high 31 in 2002-2003.

After a 2005-2006 season, the end of that four season run, in which he scored 16 goals, he was traded back to Washington by the Canadiens for a third round pick in the 2007 entry draft.  The team to which Zednik returned was not a playoff contender, and his game was not what it was in his first tour in Washington. After 32 games with the Caps in which he scored just six goals, he was traded to the New York Islanders for a second round pick in the 2007 entry draft.  It would be one of the more productive draft picks for the Caps in an indirect way.  They selected defenseman Theo Ruth with that pick, who was later traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Sergei Fedorov.

Zednik stayed the rest of the season on Long Island, scoring only one goal in ten games, then signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers.  In two seasons with Florida he recorded 32 goals in 124 games, but might have been known best for an incident in a February10, 2008 game in Buffalo when his neck was cut by a teammate's skate blade It would end Zednik’s 2007-2008 season, but he did return for one more season in Florida, closing out his NHL career with 17 goals in 70 games for the Panthers.

Zednik played two more seasons in Europe before ending his professional hockey career that included 13 seasons in the NHL, seven of them over two tours with the Capitals.  The promise he displaed early in his career was not fulfilled, but he was still a productive player for the club, especially in its Stanley Cup final year in 1997-1998.  For that Richard Zednik has a place on Team Z, which should make his “Zedhead” fans happy.

Defense: Rob Zettler

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 90 games, 1-10-11, plus-2
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 11 games, 0-0-0, minus-3

Rob Zettler was a defensive defenseman.  He better have been, what with having scored only five goals in 569 games in his NHL career.  Only once did he score more than one goal in a season, and only once did he record more than ten points, both achieved in the 1996-1997 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, three seasons before he made his way to Washington.

That path to Washington started for Zettler when he was drafted in the third round (55th overall) by the Minnesota North Stars in the 1986 entry draft, the 20th defenseman taken.  Zettler played three seasons with the North Stars before making stops in San Jose, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Nashville, who claimed him in the expansion draft of 1998.

Zettler, who until he was claimed by the Predators, played in 477 NHL games over ten seasons.  He played in only two games for Nashville in 1998-1999, spending most of his time (77 games) with the Utah Grizzlies of the IHL.  That would be all for his stay in the Nashville organization; Zettler signed with the Caps as a free agent in September 1999.

Zettler did not find it much easier to crack the Capitals’ lineup.  He played in just 12 games of the 1999-2000 season, while appearing in 23 games for the Caps’ AHL affiliate in Portland.  He split time once more in the 2000-2001 season between the NHL and AHL, 29 games with the Caps and 36 games with the Pirates. 

In 2001-2002 he hit his high water mark with the Capitals, appearing in 49 games and scoring his only goal as a Capital.  It came on February 23, 2002 at MCI Center against the Montreal Canadiens.  Nine minutes into the contest, Andrei Nikolishin took control of the puck at the left wing boards and laid out a pass for Zettler at the edge of the faceoff circle.  Zettler’s one-timer beat Jose Theodore to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.  Alas, it was not the game-winning goal.  The Caps lost, 5-3 (oddly enough, former Caps Richard Zednik and Joe Juneau scored the game tying and game-winning goals).

Zettler would retire in the off-season to follow and embark on a career in coaching, named as an assistant with the San Jose Sharks in December 2002.  He has held a variety of assistant coaching positions since, mostly under Ron Wilson.  He is currently head coach of the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL.  While his stay in Washington was not particularly noteworthy, it did coincide with the last years of success before the team went into a decline  that forced a rebuild.  Rob Zettler makes for a steadying influence on Team Z.

Defense: Dwayne Zinger

Regular Season (with Capitals): 1 season, 7 games, 0-1-1, plus-2
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Some guys have long, productive careers in the NHL that follow a nice clean arc of progress that spans years.  Those are the comparative rarity in sports, or in life, for that matter.  On the other hand, there are guys who undertake an arduous climb from rung to rung up the ladder so that they might get one brief moment in “the show.  The “Crash Davises” of the NHL.

Meet Dwayne Zinger.  His was a career that started with little fanfare, undrafted by any NHL team, spending a season as a 19-year old with the Melville Millionaires of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey league, then four years with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

Upon his completion of his four year stint in Alaska, Zinger signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings in March 2000.  He never played for the parent club, having played for two years in the AHL with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.  In July 2002 he was signed as a free agent with the Capitals.  That meant another year toiling in the AHL, now with the Portland Pirates. 

It started that way in the 2003-2004 season, too.  Over the first two months of the season he was the Pirates leading scorer from the blueline.  Through 23 games he had four goals and three assists.  In December, however, he got the call, and on the 11th he dressed for his first NHL game.  It was against the Boston Bruins, a team that always provides a physical challenge.  Sure enough, with the Caps holding a 4-2 lead in the second period, Zinger had his baptism in the NHL, a fight with the Bruins’ Doug Doull…

It would be Zinger’s only dent in the score sheet for the evening in just 2:08 of ice time.  He played another six games with the Caps before returning to Portland.  In the last of them he scored his first (and only) NHL point , and assist on the game-winning goal with less than one minute left in regulation time in a 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens at MCI Center. 

With that game, the NHL portion of his career was complete.  Zinger finished the season in Portland and played with the Pirates in the 2004-2005 NHL lockout season.  In February 2006, in one of the little ironies that you see in sports from time to time, Zinger was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for none other than Doug Doull, his fighting partner in his NHL debut.  He would not rise higher than the AHL again, though, playing with the San Antonio Rampage for the rest of the 2005-2006 season, then spending two years with the Providence Bruins.

After the 2007-2008 season he tried his hand in Europe with the Odense Bulldogs in Denmark.  After one season there he returned to North America for a final season with the Cincinnati Bulldogs in the ECHL.  After the 2009-2010 season his hockey resume was complete.  There was that brief moment, though, one in which he experienced the roughness and the joy in the NHL.  It’s more than most can say they had, and for that Dwayne Zinger gets a spot on Team Z.

Goalie: Roger Crozier

Regular Season (with Capitals): 1 season, 3 games, 1-0-0, 1.17
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Left with no goaltenders in franchise history whose name starts with the letter “Z,” we turn to a player who at least carries the letter in his last name.  It might be fitting that we come to the end of the alphabet with Roger Crozier in goal.  He played in only three games for the Capitals, those coming at the end of a 14-year career in which he played in 540 regular season and playoff games.

It started for Crozier as an undrafted goalie out of the St Catharines Teepees in the OHA junior league, where he helped the Teepees win a Memorial Cup in 1960.  The Teepees were owned by the Chicago Blackhawks at the time, and league sponsorship rules stipulated the Blackhawks had rights to all of the team’s players.  Crozier never played for Chicago, though, his rights being traded to the Detroit Red Wings with Ron Ingram for Howie Young in June 1963.

That trade did not pay immediate dividends for the Red Wings, but in the 1964-1965 season Crozier made Detroit happy with the deal.  He appeared in 70 games and posted a record of 40-22-7 with a goals against average of 2.42.  He won the Calder Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie, garnered a first team all-star selection, and was fourth in the voting for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.  The following year he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the post-season, even though the Red Wings lost the Stanley Cup final to the Montreal Canadiens.  He is one of five players in the history of the award to have won it as a member of a team that did not win the Cup.

That would be a tough start to a career to sustain, let alone eclipse.  Over the next ten seasons, with Detroit and then the Buffalo Sabres, Crozier’s record bounced around .500, both in the regular season (133-145-47, with a season high of 23 wins with Buffalo in 1972-1973) and in the playoffs (5-5 over three seasons).  As the years went by, his health declined, reaching the point where he played in only 11 games in the 1975-1976 season.  Finally, in March 1977 he was sent to the Capitals by the Sabres in a cash deal.  He played in just three games for the Caps with a 1-0-0 record, allowing only two goals in 113 minutes of play (1.17 goals against average).  He was unable to finish any of the three games he started, although he did play two periods in a March 18th game against the Colorado Rockies, giving up no goals in his 40 minutes and combining with Ron Low for a 5-0 shutout for his only win with Washington.

Crozier retired after that 1976-1977 season, but he would go on to serve as interim head coach for the team for one game in 1981 between the tenures of Gary Green and Bryan Murray (he lost that lone game).  He also served as interim general manager for the club from November 1981, replacing Max McNab, until August 1982, when he was replaced by David Poile.

Roger Crozier passed away in 1996 after a battle with cancer.  He served in more capacities for less time than anyone even associated with the club – player, coach, general manager.  He covered the full range of experience with the club, and for that he gets the last spot on Team Z.

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