Monday, September 01, 2014

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

We are down to Team W in the march through the Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Teams.  This one draws mostly from the early days, the days of disco, Star Wars, and a lot of frustrated hockey fans in Washington.

Left Wing: Tony White

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 158 games, 37-28-65, minus-62
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Tony White was not an especially flashy goal scorer when he was rising through Canadian juniors with the Kitchener Rangers.  It was not surprising that he would last until the tenth round of the 1974 amateur draft.  That is where the Capitals picked him (161st overall), one of a stable of 25 picks taken in their inaugural draft.

He would get a taste of the NHL the following season (five games) but spent the bulk of his time with the Dayton Gems of the IHL, where he scored 23 goals in 64 games, more goals than either of his seasons with Kitchener.

That was prelude to a rookie season in 1975-1976 in which White scored 25 goals, he and Nelson Pyatt (26) becoming the first players in team history to hit the 25-goal mark for a season.  It was a frustrating season, nonetheless.  Despite finishing with 32 even strength points, White was minus-43 in 80 games, one of nine players to finish minus-40 or worse in an 11-59-10 season.

That would be White’s high-water mark for goals and points with the Caps.  In 1976-1977 his plsu-minus improved markedly (minus-15 in 72 games), but his offense shrunk almost as much.  His production was halved (12-9-21) from his rookie season.

White slid all the way to the minors in 1977-1978, appearing in just one game for the Caps (no points and a minus-4 in his last appearance for the team) and in 68 games for the Hershey Bears.  After spending a season with the Springfield Indians of the AHL, White was signed as a free agent by the Minnesota North Stars.  He appeared in six games for the North Stars in 1979-1980, his last appearances in the NHL.  After playing most of that season in Oklahoma City with the Stars of the CHL and another with that club, he headed to Europe where he played his last two seasons of hockey with EV Fussen in the West German leagues.

It was good while it lasted, even if it did not last too long for Tony White and the Capitals.  Being a “first,” even on one of those struggling early teams for the Caps was something to note.  That’s why Tony White gets the left wing spot on Team W.

Center: Ryan Walter

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 307 games, 114-163-277, minus-14
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

When the Washington Capitals made Ryan Walter the second overall pick in the 1978 amateur draft, they took a youngster whose progress through Canadian juniors was impressive.  Over a three year period with the Kamloops Chiefs and Seattle Breakers, Walter recorded 130 goals and 308 points.

He did not miss a beat when he joined the Caps in the 1978-1979 season.  A 28-goal, 56-point season was good enough to earn Walter a second-place finish in the Calder Trophy voting for the league’s top rookie.  He also happened to be the only rookie to earn votes for the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play.

Walter put together two more solid years in 1979-1980 (24-42-66) and 1980-1981 (24-44-68) before he had a breakout season in 1981-1982.  In 78 games Walter went 38-49-87, the goals, assists, and points all being career bests.  He also finished eighth in Selke Trophy voting for top defensive forward (right between two forwards who later would play for the Caps – Dale Hunter and Jorgen Petterson).

Instead of that 1981-1982 season being the launching pad for a long and productive career with the Caps, Walter become the personification of “sell high.”  On September 9, 1982 he and Rick Green, a first overall draft pick in the year before Walter was selected, were traded to the Montreal Canadiens for  Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin.  It was arguably the biggest trade in Capitals history, playing a large role in saving the franchise in Washington.

As for Walter’s fate after leaving the Caps, he never was able to repeat with Montreal the level of production he had in the 1981-1982 season with Washington.  After a 75-point season in his first year with the Canadiens he settled into being a 40-50 point player over the next five seasons.  In 1988-1989, having reached his 30th birthday, Walter’s offensive production started to decline as his game evolved into one of being more of a defensive specialist.  In 1990-1991 he registered only one point in 25 games.  Walter signed as a free agent with Vancouver in July 1991, where he played in his last two NHL seasons.

Ryan Walter had quite a range of experiences in his career.  With the Caps he was the young phenom who had fine early seasons, then at the age of 24 and at top of his game he was traded.  He had a long and productive career – more than a thousand games and more than 600 points – but he will always be linked with the biggest trade in team history.  For his early years of play and his role in saving the franchise, Ryan Walter centers Team W.

Right Wing: Tommy Williams

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 307 games, 114-163-277, minus-14
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Expansion teams generally have two kinds of players on their rosters.  There are the youngsters thrown into a lead role because there isn’t much by way of talent to hold them back in the minors, and there are the veterans on the back nine of their careers playing a leadership role or filling in the blanks until the young club can build itself into a competitive one.

Williams might be considered the latter.  By the time he arrived in Washington from Boston in a cash deal in July 1974, he already had 13 seasons under his belt, 11 of them in the NHL and two in the fledgling World Hockey Association.  It was a solid, if unspectacular career to that point, Williams recording 131 goals and 351 points in those 11 NHL seasons with three teams, and 31 goals and 89 points in two years with the New England Whalers in the WHA.

In coming to Washington, Williams was experiencing his second tour with an expansion team.  He was a member of the WHA Whalers in their inaugural (and championship) season in 1972-1973.  His experience with the Caps was not quite as successful.  On a team that set a league record for futility, Williams was third on the team in games played (73), and led the team in goals (22), power play points (19), and total points (58).

Williams played another season with the Caps, and plagued by an ailing back he was limited to 34 games in which he scored eight goals and recorded 21 points.  He retired after that season, second on the franchise list of all time goal scorers (30, since eclipsed).  It might not have been the end of a career one would dream of, but Williams was certainly appreciative of what he experienced, including being the only American in the NHL for a time Part of that experience was being a member of the first Washington Capitals teams and being an important part of them.  It is the reason he gets the call on the right side of Team W.

Defense: Brendan Witt

Regular Season (with Capitals): 10 seasons, 626 games, 20-63-83, minus-50
Playoffs (with Capitals): four seasons, 31 games, 4-0-4, minus-10

By the time Brendan Witt was hit by an SUV while on his way to get a cup of coffee in downtown Philadelphia on the morning of a game in 2009,  he had long established himself as one of the toughest players in the NHL. 

When Witt was taken in the first round of the 1993 entry draft by the Capitals (11th overall), there were no pretensions that he was an offensive, or even a two-way defenseman.  In two years with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL, Witt recorded just five goals and 35 points in 137 games.  He did compile 474 penalty minutes in those 130 games, though.  What the Caps were getting, even with Witt still being a teenager, was a tough, physical defensive defenseman. 

They were also getting a stubborn one, or a principled one, depending on where you sit on the matter of signing entry level contracts.  It took the Caps almost two years to sign Witt to a deal, almost losing him to his re-entry into the 1995 draft.  But sign him they did, and he established himself as a player who seemed fearless in applying his physical skills.  In his first two seasons he was third among Caps’ defensemen in total penalty minutes (173), but he played in only 92 games, far fewer than the two defensemen in front of him – Joe Reekie (256 minutes in 143 games) and Mark Tinordi (231 minutes in 127 games).  That penalty total included 15 fights, including quite a bout in Philadelphia…

It was the beginning of a ten year career in Washington in which Witt did not do much by way of scoring (20 goals, 83 points), but did make a physical impression on opponents (1,035 minutes in penalties, 53 fights).  His no-nonsense style of play helped earn him a co-captaincy for the 2001-2002 season with Steve Konowalchuk.

After that 2001-2002 season the Caps started a decline.  In 2002-2003 they finished second in the Southeast Division but dropped a six-game opening round playoff series to the Tampa Bay Lightning after holding a 2-0 lead in games.  Oddly enough, it was Witt who scored the only goal by a Capitals defenseman in that series.

In 2003-2004 the Caps collapsed, and they started selling off assets in preparation of a rebuild.  Witt, who was still just 28 years old, was not among the players being sent away for picks and prospects.  Things were different, though, after the league went dark for a year due to labor-management problems.  The 2005-2006 season was going to be a difficult one for the Caps, and Witt was not inclined to play through a rebuild.  He requested a trade in August 2005 to a team that had better chances of playoff success.  

He was still with the club to start the 2005-2006 season, but he was not there to end it.  In March 2006 he was traded to the Nashville Predators for Kris Beech and a first round draft pick (that would become Semyon Varlamov).  Witt played out the season in Nashville, then he signed with the New York Islanders as a free agent the following summer.  He played four seasons on Long Island, until he was placed on waivers by the Islanders in January 2010.  When he cleared waivers he was sent to the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.  After he wrapped up the season with the Sound Tigers, the Islanders bought him out of his remaining contract years, bringing his NHL career to an end.

Brendan Witt was one of a kind, a player who seemed to be of an era before that in which he played, a tougher, simpler era, "old school," if you will.  It made for an interesting mix that made him one of the enduring characters in franchise history, one of only seven defensemen to appear in more than 600 games for the Caps.  He and Scott Stevens are still the only defensemen in team history to play in more than 600 games and accumulate more than 1,000 penalty minutes.  We would not presume to leave Brendan Witt off of Team W.

Defense: Bryan Watson

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 155 games, 4-26-30, minus-24
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Bryan Watson made the rounds in his career.  Undrafted as player in Canadian juniors with the Peterborough Petes, he started his NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1963-1964 season.  Two years in Montreal were followed by stops in Detroit, Montreal (again), Oakland with the Seals, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit (again), and finally, in 1976, with Washington, courtesy of a trade sending former number one overall pick Greg Joly to the Red Wings.

Never an offensive producer from the blue line (13 goals and 122 points in 14 seasons before suiting up for the Caps), Watson’s game was going to have to provide more in the category of “intangibles."  Well, except perhaps for his lively nature.  Despite being ordinary in size (5’9”, 175), he did not let that prevent him from mixing it up from time to time.  In the five seasons immediately preceding his arrival in Washington, he rolled up 70 fights.

The fighting and penalties were less frequent with the Caps, Watson’s value being on the ice for a team just struggling to be competitive.  The clock was ticking louder for Watson, though, and he was released by the Caps after appearing in 20 games of the 1978-1979 season.  Although his release brought his NHL career to an end, he caught on with the Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA and played 21 games before calling it quits for his professional hockey career.   When he left the NHL he did so as the league’s all-time leader in penalty minutes at the time (2,176 minutes).

Watson, who was approaching the end of his career when he came to Washington, played parts of three seasons with the club.  As it turned out, he was the oldest skater on each of those three teams (the oldest player on two of them), the most experienced among a collection of youngsters and journeymen.  He did not entirely lose his feistiness (16 fights in 155 games) and still did not have much in the way of offensive punch (four goals, 30 points in 155 games), but his presence and experience was an important part of the Caps getting through those rough early years in the history of the franchise.  That is why “Bugsy” gets a spot on the blue line on Team W.

Goaltender: Bernie Wolfe

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 120 games, 20-61-21, 4.17, 1 shutout
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Being a goaltender for the early editions of the Washington Capitals was an unforgiving exercise in despair.  The Capitals did not have a goaltender finish a season having played at least 20 games with a goals against average of less than 3.50 until 1982-1983, when both Pat Riggin (3.36) and Al Jensen (3.44) did it.  There were nine goalies over the first eight seasons in franchise history who played in at least one season with 20 or more games who failed to finish below that 3.50 goals against average mark. 

Bernie Wolfe was one of those goalies.  He and Ron Low would “fail” the most times over that eight-year period, three times apiece.  But let us not heap the blame on the goalies in general or Wolfe in particular.  It was a team effort, and it made for a hard way to make a living for a goaltender. 

Over a four-year period from the 1975-1976 season through 1978-1979, Wolfe appeared in more games than any of the eight goaltenders the Caps employed.  His 4.17 goals against average was typical of the period.  He did however, work against the Capitals type in one respect.   He won in his first NHL appearance, a 6-2 win over the Kansas City Scouts on October 30, 1975. 

Wolfe had another first as well during his stay in Washington.  On January 10, 1977, in the Capitals’ 202nd game in franchise history, Wolfe recorded his first (and only) career shutout, a 2-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings.  It was part of what would be his “best” season with the club (7-15-9, 3.84 goals against average).

Two more seasons followed for Wolfe in the Capitals organization that saw him losing playing time, first in 1977-1978 to Jim Bedard (25 appearances to 43 for Bedard), and again in 1978-1979 (18 appearances to 30 for Bedard and 37 for Gary Inness). 

Wolfe retired from the NHL after that 1978-1979 season, but it would not be the end of his hockey career.  Not quite.  The NHL was about to expand in the 1992-1993 season, and that meant holding an expansion draft.  Teams were allowed to protect two goaltenders and 14 skaters (the San Jose Sharks were exempt from exposure of players owing to their being an expansion team the previous season).  One of the goalies to be left unprotected by each team had to have at least 60 minutes of NHL experience. 

Some teams were creative about how they dealt with the goalie provisions.  It is worth noting that six goalies played in only one game in the 1991-1992 season.   Chjcago did not want to expose any of their three top goalies – Ed Belfour, Dominik Hasek, and Jimmy Waite – to selection in the expansion draft and solved that problem by dressing Ray LeBlanc for one game in 1991-1992 (he was not selected in the expansion draft).  Calgary dressed Scott Sharples for one game – the season finale – in what would be his only NHL game, allowing the Flames to hold on to Mike Vernon, Jeff Reese, and Trevor Kidd. 

The Caps went one better, or rather tried to.  They wanted to protect Olaf Kolzig, Don Beaupre, and Jim Hrivnak.  They might have had the solution in exposing Mike Liut, but he retired after the 1991-1992 season and thus was not an option.  Faced with the possibility of losing a goaltender for whom the team had plans, general manager David Polie signed Bernie Wolfe to a contract on June 15th.  That would be 40-year old Bernie Wolfe, 13 years removed from the NHL and working as a financial planner in the Washington area.  The league’s response to this imaginative idea was “nice try.”  The Caps were told to go back and do it again, and they signed Steve Weeks to a contract the following day (he was not selected, either).

And so, Bernie Wolfe’s NHL career finally came to a definitive end.  All of it – four seasons of play and one day as a backup backup backup goalie over an 18 year period – makes for one of the more interesting tenures in Washington Capitals history.  That gives Bernie Wolfe the job of goaltending for Team W.

Team W reaches back to the earliest days of the franchise for much of its roster.  There is a lot of pain and heartache in those early years for those players.  One the other hand, Brendan Witt, a player of more recent vintage, dished out a lot of pain and heartache (and headache and rib-ache).  All told, there are more than 3,800 regular season and playoff experience on this team.  That is a combination that makes for a team that perhaps you don’t want to play against.