As Training Camp slowly (so slowly) approaches, we decided to take a quick look at some of the new faces, returnees, hopefuls and last-chancers that will be vying for a spot in the Caps’ forward corps. Battles at many slots are expected, and this may be one of the most competitive camp in Caps’ history.
First, we’ll examine the forwards, a group that received an infusion of talent down the middle and added a veteran scoring winger:
Nicklas Backstrom — The youngster is seemingly a lock for the big squad. A slick-passing center with hockey sense and puck-control, the most impressive thing about his game at this point may be his attention to the other end of the ice. His awareness and positioning without the puck, coupled with his creativity and vision should be a boon to either of the Caps’ elite left wingers. Foot speed is a concern, and while he won’t arrive in North America to the same fanfare that Alex Ovechkin did, the “Next Great Swede” will have all the eyes of his country upon him.
Matt Bradley — Largely considered to be a spare winger in the upcoming season, his physicality and willingness to do the little things ensure he’ll have a veteran’s chance at training camp. Good speed, a team-first attitude and a bit of an edge to his game keep him in play for the big club, if only in a press box role.
Donald Brashear – His first season riding shotgun for the Caps was a solid one, with Brashear leading the team in PIMs and tied at 9th in the league with 14 majors (and a game misconduct and a match penalty thrown in for good measure). The big winger brought pretty much what he was advertised to bring, resulting in a contract extension for the 07-08 season, and will be expected to continue his role as the Caps’ cop and be a physical presence on the ice.
Chris Clark — The captain of the club may fill any of the top 3 right wing spots. Obsessive work ethic on and off the ice, he willingly goes into corners to dig out pucks, forechecks with enthusiasm, and may not be physically capable of putting in an effort of less than 100%. 110%? Hey, he’s human, but he also will play with no teeth and some kind of horrific dental damage, so I think we can all agree the guy is tough, works his butt off, and is a complete pain to play against. Jumping to 20 goals from his previous current high upon his first season with the Caps, the gritty winger hit 30 last year, and signed the rare player and team friendly extension this off-season. He’s the slide guy as far as the right wing position goes — Coach Hanlon can deploy him with Ovechkin or Semin’s line to do the hard work, or can join up on Boyd Gordon’s right to form two-thirds of a formidable checking line.
Ben Clymer — 06-07 was largely forgettable for Clymer, with a failed experiment putting him back on the blue-line early in the season, and fighting lingering injury for the full 82 games. The winger didn’t seem to have his usual jump, which much of his game is based on. Often kind of an afterthought for the upcoming season, much like Bradley, the thought here is a healthy Clymer will likely get regular minutes on either the 3rd or 4th lines, and have a bounce-back season.
Eric Fehr — So far the lanky sniper hasn’t been overwhelming in his 25 NHL games (2 goals, 1 assist, +1, 35 shots), but has shown signs of what the Caps liked in him, including paying some attention to the opposition when he doesn’t have the puck. What could be an interesting training camp for the youngster from Winkler has something of a spin on it, as he is recovering from a hip injury that only recently has begun to heal up. A healthy Fehr could challenge for a spot on the big club, but if not fully recovered, a spot in Hershey to shake the rust off and get back into game shape seems likely.
Tomas Fleischmann — Another young winger who may contend for a spot on the Caps, though his finish to last season doesn’t provide a lot of momentum (pointless in his last nine games). Fleischmann did have some nice offensive moments, including an impressive 4 point game against some shaky Tampa goaltending, and he is now subject to waivers, which adds some import for both the player and the club to find a spot for him on the big squad. Possibly a make-or-break season for the talented Czech.
Boyd Gordon — Maybe the breakout player of the 06-07 campaign, Gordon took over the 3rd line center slot and it doesn’t look like he’ll relinquish it anytime soon. Good in the faceoff dot (52%), ever-vigilant in the defensive aspects of the game, he also chipped in 29 points and anchored the penalty kill. We can probably pencil Gordon in at checking line center for the foreseeable future.
Jakub Klepis — Another candidate for a make-or-break camp, the skilled Klepis spent half of the NHL season with the parent club, and didn’t exactly set the world on fire (3 goals, 7 assists). While he occasionally showed glimpses of his considerable talents, and he is a solid point-producer at the AHL level, he hasn’t seemed to be able to put it together in the NHL. Time may be running out for Klepis, as he’s no longer waiver-exempt, and the top two center spots look to be filled by Nylander and Backstrom. Klepis may very well be an odd-man out this season, or potential trade bait, though it’s unlikely that he would bring a bounty back in trade by himself.
Viktor Kozlov — A new face for the 07-08 season, Kozlov is a versatile forward who can play both center and wing, though he is stronger at the wing. Not physical but a big body, Kozlov has some past chemistry with Alex Ovechkin, is solid defensively, and is coming off a career high in goals. With the good comes the bad, however, and Kozlov has been criticized for a lack of consistency and effort level, though he played well under Ted Nolan, a guy who doesn’t put up with a lot of loafing. There were times last season when the Islanders’ faithful were less than thrilled with Kozlov’s sometimes hot, sometimes cold play.
Brooks Laich — The freshly-arbitrated center now has a one-way deal that should keep him in the mix in D.C. Solid defensively with good size, and occasionally displaying some offensive acumen, Laich is a forward in the mix for the bottom six spots — a crowded field. There has been some thought that the upcoming season could be the time when Laich’s game takes off, and it may have to in order to get regular ice time.
Jason Morgan — A solid AHL performer, he figures to get at least a quick look at camp, though it is more than likely that he has been brought in for duty in Hershey.
Joe Motzko — Another probable Hershey signing, Motzko has only had a brief taste of the bigs (11 games), but fits the role of a veteran scoring presence for the Bears.
Michael Nylander — The guess here is that a certain Russian left winger who goes by “Ovie” smiled when he found out the Caps had brought in the veteran Swedish pivot. A gifted playmaker who has excelled with star flankers, Nylander also is an excellent stickhandler, and should be able to gain the offensive zone unaided, freeing Ovechkin up to get into position in the slot and get his stick cocked and ready to convert some clever feeds. Also providing a boost to the power play, Nylander gives the Caps a skilled offensive center, and it seems a given that he will be presented every opportunity to develop a solid working relationship with Ovechkin. The fact that Nylander should be able to help his younger countryman Backstrom along is a bonus.
Alex Ovechkin — 06-07 was an interesting season for the phenom, coming into camp admittedly out of shape, and not really looking like himself until later in the campaign. With defenses keying their game-plans on stopping #8, he had less space to work with, and even had some fans expressing unhappiness with his play. All that said, he put up 46 goals and 92 points in what some considered his sophomore slump, and figures to put up more impressive totals with the addition of some skilled forwards, and a more effective power play. Ovechkin has vowed to come into camp in shape, and hopefully he’ll be primed for a big season.
Matt Pettinger — The follow-up to his break-out season followed a similar pattern: a few games missed to injury, some strong defensive play at even-strength and while a man down, and a few goal-scorer’s goals. Pettinger’s all-around game coupled with a strong work ethic and a shoot-first mentality make for a strong checking-line player who can chip in some offense, and it will be a surprise if he isn’t dressed on Opening Night.
Alexander Semin — The Other Alexander returned to the NHL in 06-07 and showed that Ovechkin isn’t the only Russian on the squad with jaw-dropping skills. Showcasing some impressive puck-handling, as well as one of the best wrist-shots in the game, Semin gave the Caps a bona-fide offensive threat outside of Ovechkin. Of course, with Semin, you get some frustration as well — late in the season he seemed to lose all faith in his line-mates and tried to do everything himself. Hopefully, the addition of a skilled centerman will bring out the playmaking elements of his game.
Dave Steckel — A terrific all-around player for Hershey, Steckel managed to put up numbers despite being assigned the other team’s top line and given heavy penalty kill minutes. This is an important season for the big center, as he seems have hit his ceiling in the AHL — the NHL is the next step. Another part of the group vying for spots on the bottom 6, Steckel’s impressive wingspan and man-down acumen may give him a bit of an advantage over the other contenders, as the club is looking to upgrade both pk units. Definitely a player to watch in camp.
Brian Sutherby — Another player who may be entering a pivotal season, as his claim to the checking line center role has gone to fellow WHL alum Gordon. Sutherby has been and will be dogged by a groin injury that has cost him a bit of his skating, but his competitiveness, leadership, and willingness to play with some edge are commodities that clubs value. His offensive production took a bit of a dip last year, though he’ll never be counted on for necessary offense, and there has been speculation of Sutherby maybe switching to wing, where he can use his size and strength to more of an advantage.
Kyle Wilson — recently signed by the Caps after his solid season in Hershey, Wilson’s smart game and development intrigued the big club. Likely in Hershey the bulk of the season, he’ll help shore up the club’s middle.
Other players who may get a look on in D.C. but may spend the majority of their time in Chocolatetown are Andrew Gordon, Travis Morin, Andrew Joudrey, Chris Bourque and Steve Werner.
Much like the defense, the battle for the 12+ spots in Washington should be a spirited affair. It’s conceivable that up to 5 forward spots on Opening Night’s starting line-up could be up for grabs, so the onus will be on each player to come in to camp in shape and ready to play from the word ‘go’.