A quick lesson in hockey prospect development: be patient.
Last May, as Capitals’ players packed up their gear after succumbing to the Penguins in seven games and headed home for the offseason, an awful lot of Caps’ fans rightly wondered what management would do to upgrade a roster that, while 100-pt.-worthy and playoff-perennial, seemed an ingredient or two short of truly elite status. The answer, it turns out, was minimal and modest: wait more on the core.
It became apparent reasonably early in the offseason that the Capitals would not re-up with either Sergei Fedorov or Viktor Kozlov. They were replaced, brilliantly, by Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble. Otherwise, the Caps’ roster remained more or less intact. Management liked its hand and reasoned that with another season of development and experience its largely organic core would mature more and produce better results. The Capitals last weekend secured 50 points faster than any other Caps’ club in team history, and for about the last month they’ve consistently flirted with no.1 in the league overall status. We don’t yet know if the Capitals are necessarily a club built better for the postseason ahead relative to last year, but clearly thus far management appears vindicated in handling the offseason as it did.
Three young players in particular I think have to be ID’d as maturing into larger and improved and thereby team-improving roles in 2009-10: Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischman, and Jeff Schultz. All three are the beneficiaries of management’s patience.
Flash, drafted in 2002 by Detroit, was acquired from the Wings for Robert Lang in 2004 as part of the Capitals’ great pre-lockout purge of high-priced vets. Fleischmann quickly developed into a dominant scoring winger in the American League, flourishing most especially while skating for Bruce Boudreau in Hershey in the Bears’ Calder Cup title of 2005-06. The question then became, could Flash take his modest frame and still be productive in the bigger, faster National League.
It’s taken a while, but the answer today appears to be: absolutely. It’s clear that Bruce Boudreau believes it. During training camp in 2008 the head coach could be overheard in the locker room discussing 30-plus goal seasons ahead for the Czech winger. He believed in Flash then and he does now. Flash has a modest 47 goals in 216 NHL games, but 14 of those have come in his 25 games this season — a figure even more impressive when you consider that Flash had absolutely no training camp after being diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg over the summer. And his development into a productive, bona fide top-six forward hasn’t occurred at the expense of his defense: while he skated as a minus player his first four years in the league, this season he’s on the plus side of the ledger. He very well could score 30 goals for the Capitals this season, perhaps as a plus-10, and you have to think he’ll be given strong consideration for a spot on the Czech Republic Olympic entry in Vancouver.
Eric Fehr’s emergence this season is even more exciting in light of the litany of physical ailments he’s endured, his most recent in particular. He endured surgery on both shoulders this past offseason, unable even to feed himself during a portion of his recovery. But you’d never know it watching him play today.
Like Fleischmann, Fehr wasn’t physically ready for the start of this season, but he’s flourished in the moderate minutes Boudreau has accorded him. He put up 12 goals in 61 games with the Caps last season, and he will certainly better that tally this year. Drafted as the Capitals’ first-round selection in 2003, all the hockey world looked to be his oyster as his produced consecutive 50-plus goal seasons for Brandon in the WHL. He then enjoyed a strong rookie campaign in Hershey in 2005-06: 25 goals and 28 assists in 70 games. Then the injuries set in. A mysterious nerve malady that led to a herniated disc in his lower back. Then his shoulders failed him. Really he was never able to get settled into a development groove with the organization. It’s a testament to his perseverance and the Capitals’ patience that this season he is showcasing the hands and knack around the net that had Capitals’ scouts in western Canada so excited six years ago.
Like Fleischmann, Fehr’s worked hard to gain much-needed strength on his frame. Both wingers are considerably stronger on the puck than they were when first called up by the Caps.
Last but certainly not least in emergence this season is 2004 first round pick Jeff Schultz. He didn’t have a strong training camp by any measure, and in the early going he was a healthy scratch on the Capitals’ blueline. Moreover, were it not for Boudreau’s decision to retain eight defensemen coming out of camp, Sarge may have been marketed, but as injuries have ravaged that unit, Sarge has stepped up and logged important minutes, and Boudreau is confident enough in him of late to have him partnered with Mike Green. Sarge’s +15 is good for 5th best in the NHL.
Too many Caps’ fans I think focus on what Schultz is not: a banger, a deft skater, a points producer. But with experience he’s gained an increased awareness of his responsibilities in his own end, and he is particularly disciplined when it comes to taking penalties (12 PIMs in 29 games). Going forward, Schultz is likely to play an important role as a value-for-minutes guy: likely a no. 6 rearguard on a Cup-contending Caps’ club able to be slotted in to a 4 role if injuries set in. The Capitals are certain to have to pony up big dough in the years ahead for the likes of Mike Green, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson; Schultz will offer the team a value sedan among those spiffy sports cars.
The Capitals’ patience with their own assets not only looks wise in the standings today but particularly when juxtaposed against the relative impatience and annual free agency buffet feeding by the likes of Philadelphia, the Rangers, and Montreal. All three clubs were in the playoffs (briefly) last season. All three are on the outside looking in this morning. Championship clubs are seldom so assembled.