Monday, August 18, 2014

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

Team N is the newest addition to our Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Franchise Teams.  It is a team that might be light in experience, but it makes up for it with effective use of the alphabet.

Left Wing: Paul Nicholson

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 62 games, 4-8-12, minus-39
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

In 1974 the Washington Capitals had 25 picks in the NHL amateur draft, its first as an expansion team in the NHL.  Six of those picks would go on to play in the NHL.  Paul Nicholson was one of them. 

Nicholson was a fourth round (55th overall) pick in that draft after playing for three years with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey Association.  His last season with London, in which he more than doubled his goal total (from 16 to 36) and almost doubled his assist total (from 18 to 33) must have seemed appealing to the Caps.

The Caps being new, shorthanded, and… well, bad, Nicholson got significant playing time in the following season with the big club.  He appeared in 39 games and, considering the team on which he played, had a fairly respectable 4-5-9, minus-29 scoring line (16 players on that team had a worse plus-minus, five of them having played in fewer than 50 games).

Nicholson never got a full season with the Capitals.  Over the following two seasons he played in a total of 23 games without scoring a goal and recording only three points.  He spent most of his time in the minors, shutting among the Richmond Robins, Dayton Gems, and Springfield Indians.  In 1977-1978 he skated for the Port Huron Flags of the IHL, his last season in professional hockey at the age of 23.

He remained attached to the game after his playing days ended, involved in both minor hockey and in mentoring minor league hockey coaches.  Nicholson passed away on September 20, 2011.  His stay with the Capitals was a short one, part of a difficult stage of the team’s history.  But a part of that history he was, and he is the left wing on Team N.

Center: Michael Nylander

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 186 games, 37-91-128, minus-15
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 9 games, 3-2-5, minus-1

Michael Nylander did not become a Washington Capital until he passed his 30th birthday.  By the time he was traded to the Caps in November 2002 he was a veteran of more than 550 NHL games with the Hartford Whalers, Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Chicago Blackhawks.  Having built that resume, the Blackhawks traded Nylander to Washington in November 2002 with a third round pick in the 2003 entry draft and future considerations (which became a fourth round pick in the 2004 entry draft) for Chris Simon and Andrei Nikolishin.

Nylander played 71 games in that 2002-2003 season and finished tied for fourth on the club in points (56), helping the Caps return to the post-season after failing to qualify in the 2001-2002 season.  In the playoffs he was second on the team in goals (3) and tied for third in points (5). However, that post-season lasted only six games, the Caps eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The following season was almost over before it began for Nylander.  Late in training camp, Nylander was checked against the boards by defenseman Nolan Yonkman, suffering a broken leg.  He missed 63 games before he returned to the lineup on February 27th in a 4-1 win against the Florida Panthers. 

By that time, the Caps were 20-34-8-2 and long out of playoff contention.  The team was selling off veterans for draft picks and prospects, and Nylander’s contribution to the effort was being traded to Boston for a compensatory fourth round pick in the 2004 entry draft and the Bruins’ second round pick in that draft.

Nylander, who was about to become an unrestricted free agent, finished the year with the Bruins, recording 12 points in 15 regular season games and another six points in a six-game first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens.  He did not re-sign with Boston, taking a deal with the New York Rangers instead.  After two years in New York, Nylander found his way back to Washington in July 2007 as a free agent, signing a four-year, $19.5 million deal with the Caps.

He played in only 40 games of the 2007-2008 season with the Caps, losing the rest of his season to a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.  After trying to play through it, missing practices intermittently until January, he finally underwent surgery at the end of the month.  At the time head coach Bruce Boudreau said of him, "I give him full marks for having the courage to play the last three weeks with it -- until he couldn't play anymore.  He's tried and he's taken [practices] off, but he just couldn't go anymore. So it was best to get it done.”

In 2008-2009 Nylander dressed for 72 games with the Capitals, but it was not a very productive season.  His nine goals were a career low for Nylander among seasons in which he played at least 40 games.  His 33 assists tied a career low, set as a rookie, for a similar minimum of games.  He would appear in only three of the Capitals’ 14 post-season games.

Part of the problem was a fundamentally different playing style than that which head coach Bruce Boudreau designed.  The Caps, full of growing offensive talent, were a fast-paced group.  Nylander was a player who preferred gaining the offensive zone, peeling off, and looking to set up plays.  It was as if the “Showtime,” fast-breaking Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980’s NBA had a point guard who walked the ball up the court instead of Magic Johnson. 

By the time the 2009-2010 season rolled around, Nylander was not a top-six forward, he was something of a distraction, a poor fit for the Caps and head coach Bruce Boudreau.  Shortly after the season started he agreed to a two-week conditioning reassignment with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL.  In the first week of November he was placed on waivers.  In December he was sent to the Griffins once more.  In January he was reassigned from Grand Rapids to Jokerit Helsinki in the Finnish League. 

That completed the transactions for the 2009-2010 season.  In September 2010, on the eve of the opening of the 2010-2011 season, the Capitals and Florida Panthers completed a loan arrangement in which Nylander would play for the Rochester Americans in the AHL.  He played seven games for Rochester before sustaining a neck injury, ending his season and his career in North America.  He played one more season in Switzerland to bring his career to an end.

Michael Nylander had two tours with the Capitals that might qualify as adventures.  One was marred by injury, the other falling apart as the Caps were tearing the league up due to a playing style that was incompatible with the Capitals’ game.  It was circumstance more than skill that impacted Nylander’s two tours of duty with the Caps.  Nevertheless, that skill provides him a spot on Team N.

Right Wing: Andrei Nikolishin

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 407 games, 58-113-171, plus-20
Playoffs (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 32 games, 1-15-16, minus-2

The careful reader will note that Andrei Nikolishin was primarily a center in his hockey career.  That is not to say he never played on the wing.  And that is why he occupies this space on Team N (there being no pure right wingers in team history whose name starts with the letter “N”).  He came to occupy a spot on the Capitals roster when he was traded to Washington by the Hartford Whalers for Curtis Leschyshyn in November of 1996. 

Nikolishin had just started his third season in the NHL after being drafted in the second round (47th overall) by the Whalers in the 1992 entry draft out of Dynamo Moscow.  He was a forward who showed some early promise as an offensive threat (14-37-51 in 61 games in his second season in Hartford) but fell into more of a checking role with the Caps. 

What helped hold Nikolishin back from contributing more on offense was a tendency to sustain injuries. In the summer of 1997 he sustained a knee injury and missed 38 games the following season.  In 2000 he suffered an abdominal injury that he largely played through.  In 2001, a leg injury slowed him down.  There were also contract problems over the years.  In 1998 he held out briefly at the start of the season before agreeing to terms of a new deal.  In 2002 he threatened a holdout rather than accept a qualifying offer and was traded that November to the Chicago Blackhawks with Chris Simon for Michael Nylander, a third round pick in the 2003 entry draft, and future considerations.

But in the midst of all of that, Nikolishin was a solid checking forward who was effective on faceoffs and in his own end of the ice.  In 1998, despite playing only 38 regular season games as a result of his knee injury, he was a very productive performer during the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup finals.  He finished the post-season third on the team in scoring (14 points in 21 games) and led the club in assists (13).

That would be the high point of his offensive performance with the Caps.  The following season, perhaps affected by the early season holdout, he scored only eight goals in 73 games, although he did set a personal record for the Capitals portion of his career with 27 assists.  The next three seasons were more of the same – solid if unspectacular, an average of 12 goals per season and 33 points, with a plus-5.  In the post season, though, he could not recapture the touch he had in 1998.  In 11 games covering the 2000 and 2001 post season, he registered only two assists and no goals and was a minus-6.

After the Capitals failed to make the post-season after the 2001-2002 season, and the Caps were not willing to accept his contract demands, they traded him to Chicago.  He spent a year with the Blackhawks, going 6-15-21 in 60 games, then moved on to Colorado, where he was 5-7-12 in an injury-plagued season that limited him to 49 games. 

The 2003-2004 season in Colorado was Nikolishin’s last in the NHL.  He returned to Russia during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout and played with CSKA Moscow.  He stayed in Russia when the NHL resumed play for the 2005-2006 season and played with several teams before his career ended with Traktor Chelyabinsk in 2010-2011.

Over six seasons with the Capitals, Andrei Nikolishin did a lot of the hard work necessary to win hockey games – solid checking, responsible defense, occasional offense – for a team that won 225 games over those seasons.  He might have been held back by injuries and contract issues, but he was an important part of those teams and gets a spot on Team N.

Defense: Lee Norwood

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 34 games, 7-11-18, plus-4
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Lee Norwood put the “journey” in journeyman hockey player over his 12-season NHL career.  He played 503 regular season and 65 post-season games with seven different NHL clubs.  Two of those seasons were spent in Washington.

It started in Quebec where the Nordiques picked him in the third round (62nd overall) in the 1979 entry draft from the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League.  After another year with the Generals, Norwood skated for the Hershey Bears in the AHL and got his first taste of NHL action with 11 games in the 1980-1981 season.    

The following season Norwood skated for the Fredericton Express in the AHL for 29 games with a two-game stop in Quebec when he was traded to Washington with a sixth round draft pick in the 1982 entry draft for Tim Tookey and the Capitals’ seventh round pick in the 1982 draft.  He skated in 26 games with the Caps to close the season and had a very  respectable seven goals and 17 points in 26 games.  That was largely a product of his deployment on the Capitals’ power play, on which he went 3-7-10

What might have been more noteworthy, though, was his accumulating 125 penalty minutes in those 26 games.  That included five fights on a team that tended to engage in that sort of thing frequently (84 fights, third in the league that season). 

That would be pretty much the sum and substance of Norwood’s stay in Washington.  In 1983-1984 he played in eight games for the Caps (one assist, minus-3) before he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Dave Shand.  Oddly enough, despite playing for seven clubs in his NHL career, Norwood never suited up for Toronto.  He spent the entire remainder of the 1983-1984 season with the St. Catharines Saints in the AHL, then the next season with the Peoria Rivermen of the IHL. 

After that he resumed his trip through the NHL, moving on to St. Louis, then Detroit, New Jersey, Hartford, back to St. Louis, and then to Calgary where he finished his NHL career in 1993-1994.

Lee Norwood, who acquired the nickname “Hack” for his rugged style of play, occupies a small place in the early history of the Washington Capitals franchise.  But he made the most of his limited time with the club and gets a spot on the blue line for Team N.

Defense: Lawrence Nycholat

Regular Season (with Capitals): 1 seasons, 18 games, 2-6-8, minus-3
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

OK, here’s the thing.  Only four defensemen in Capitals history have last names that begin with the letter “N.”  Lawrence Nycholat has the second highest number of games played for the Caps among those defensemen.  His contribution to the club came in the 2006-2007, in his second NHL season. 

He came to the Caps by way of the New York Rangers in a roundabout way.  Nycholat was signed by the Minnesota Wild as an undrafted free agent in August 2000.  He never played for the Wild, bouncing around the minors before he was traded to the Rangers for goaltender Johan Holmqvist in March 2003.  Nycholat got a taste of NHL play the following season, playing nine games for the Rangers in 2003-2004.

The 2004-2005 lockout intervened, at the end of which Nycholat signed a free agent deal with the Capitals.  He played the 2005-2006 season with the Hershey Bears, winning a Calder Cup in the process, then split time in the 2006-2007 season between  Hershey and Washington.  In February 2007 he was traded to Ottawa for Andy Hedlund and the Senators’ sixth round pick in the 2007 entry draft.

He spent parts of two seasons with the Senators before heading on to Vancouver in a trade for Ryan Shannon in September 2008.  After getting limited action with the Canucks, he was claimed by the Calgary Flames on waivers in March 2009.  He did not play for the Flames, sent instead to Colorado in March 2009 with Ryan Wilson and a 2009 second round draft pick for Jordan Leopold.  Again seeing limited time in the NHL, Nycholat returned to Vancouver as a free agent in July 2009, never seeing action with the Canucks in his last year in an NHL organization.  He finished up his hockey career playing with the Hershey Bears in 2010-2011 and then with the Krefeld Pinguine in Germany for the 2011-2012 season.

Lawrence Nycholat played only 18 games for the Caps.  It would be hard to say any of them were memorable from a fan’s perspective, those games coming during a season (2006-2007) when the Caps were still struggling to return to competitiveness after the 2004-2005 lockout.  Still, he will get the second spot on defense for Team N.

Goalie:  Michal Neuvirth

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 134 games, 59-41-13, 2.67, .910, 7 shutouts
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 9 games, 4-5, 2.34, .912, 1 shutout

The 2006 NHL entry draft was a big one for goaltenders.  Five of the first 34 picks were netminders.  Michal Neuvirth of the Czech Republic (HC Sparta Praha Junior) was taken with that 34th overall pick.  Rather than spend another year in the Czech junior leagues, Neuvirth made the jump across the ocean to Canadian juniors where he played for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in 2006-2007, backstopping the Whalers to the semifinals of the Memorial Cup.

That was only the beginning of a long and winding road to Washington and the Capitals.  In 2007-2008 Neuvirth played for three OHL teams – the Whalers, the Windsor Spitfires, and the Oshawa Generals – posting a 17-7-8, 3.12, .911 record in the regular season and a 7-2 post-season record.  In 2008-2009 he made the jump to professional hockey and split his time between the Hershey Bears and the South Carolina Stingrays.  He was also called up to the Caps for five games to introduce him to NHL competition.  It was in Hershey where he left his mark, though.  Neuvirth went 16-6, 1.92, .932 with four shutouts, winning the Jack Butterfield Trophy as most valuable player in the Calder Cup tournament as Hershey won the AHL championship.

In 2009-2010 Neuvirth got a little longer look in the NHL, getting 17 games with the Caps (9-4-0, 2.75, .914), but it was again with Hershey that he was most successful, winning a second straight Calder Cup with the Bears.

This was a period in which Neuvirth was locked in a battle with Semyon Varlamov to see who would emerge as the number one goaltender for the Caps.  Varlamov, who was drafted ahead of Neuvirth in that 2006 draft (23rd overall), was a step ahead of Neuvirth throughout the developmental chain.  Most notably, while Neuvirth was in Hershey winning Calder Cups in 2009 and 2010, Varlamov was in Washington tending goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  However, Varlamov was also prone to injury, and in 2010-2011, when Varlamov battled groin and knee injuries, Neuvirth made the jump all the way to number one goaltender.  He appeared in 48 games, posting a 27-12-4 record with a 2.45 goals against average and a .914 save percentage with four shutouts.  The appearances, wins, goals against average, save percentage, and shutouts would be career highs for Neuvirth with the Capitals.

Neuvirth would make his only post-season appearance for the Caps in that 2010-2011 season.  It was a tale of two series.  In the opening round against the New York Rangers he was excellent, winning four of five games, posting a goals against average of 1.37 and a save percentage of .946 with one shutout and two of his wins coming in overtime.  You could say this was the high point of Neuvirth’s career with the Capitals.  In the second round against Tampa Bay he was 0-4, 3.74, .867 as the Caps were swept by the Lightning.

By the time the following season rolled around, the Caps had moved Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche, and it seemed Neuvirth would emerge victorious in the battle for the number one spot in goal.  However, the Caps signed veteran Tomas Vokoun, and it was he who took the lion’s share of appearances (48), while Neuvirth was more of a “1-A” goaltender with 38 appearances.  Even in those he was not outstanding, posting a 13-13-5, 2.82, .903 record with three shutouts.

Making things worse, Neuvirth suffered a knee injury in a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers in April ending his season.  His absence paved the way for Braden Holtby to assume the number one duties for the playoffs, and when Holtby put up excellent numbers (1.95 GAA, .935 save percentage in 14 games), it relegated Neuvirth to backup status once more in the 2012-2013 season. 

It was a role Neuvirth would play over the next two seasons, posting similar numbers for the Caps.  He made 13 appearances in each of those years, going 4-5-2 in 2012-2013 and 4-6-2 in 2013-2014.  In the 2013-2014 season Neuvirth was not only clearly the backup to Braden Holtby, he was being pressed by Philipp Grubauer for the backup position on the basis of strong performances when called up from the Hershey Bears.  In December, Neuvirth, through his agent, requested a trade.  

In March, his wish was granted.  Neuvirth was traded to the Buffalo Sabres with defenseman Rostislav Klesla (who the Caps had just obtained in a trade) for goalie Jaroslav Halak and a third round pick in the 2015 entry draft.  It was an opportunity for Neuvirth to take a firm hold on a number one goaltending job with the trade of the Sabres’ Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues, but Neuvirth appeared only twice for Buffalo before sustaining a hip injury that ended his season.

Michal Neuvirth was a symbol of the unfulfilled hope that surrounded the Capitals as their fortunes improved in the 2008-2013 period.  Neuvirth, a championship caliber goalie at the AHL level, could never replicate that success in the NHL.  It seemed as if every time he was about to cement his status as a number one goalie who could lead the club to success, something happened – an injury, an untimely cold streak – that derailed his, and the team’s progress.  Nevertheless, in his six seasons with the Caps he posted 59 wins, ninth in team history.  Perhaps surprisingly, among Capital goalies having played in at least 125 games for the club, Neuvirth has the best save career save percentage (.910).  He gets the nod in goal for Team N.

Team N...short on experience, long on "Ns."