Commentary

'Rebuilding' no longer in Capitals' vocabulary

Updated: February 7, 2008, 6:27 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Which team will be this season's surprise story? ESPN.com is picking the Washington Capitals and Scott Burnside will chronicle the team's travels throughout the season. In Part I, we begin with the team's newfound vision at training camp.

ARLINGTON, Va. -- There is a carnival-like atmosphere inside the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Balloons, booths, NHL trophies and staff decked out in Caps jerseys fill the space between the two ice surfaces on which the Washington Capitals are working out.

The stands on both sides of the $43-million complex, which sits incongruously on top of a parking garage here, are mostly filled with fans, many sporting Caps jerseys. There are lots of Ovechkins, a few Kolzigs, and even the odd throwback Hunter or Bondra in attendance.

Olaf Kolzig
ames Lang/US PresswireOlaf Kolzig chose to stay with the Capitals despite lures from other teams. He's only played in Washington over his 15-year NHL career.

Although the Caps have been at it for a couple of days now, preparing for the 2007-08 season, coach Glen Hanlon jokes that no one in the media has been pestering him about superstar Alexander Ovechkin.

"The poor guy will be in tears," Hanlon quips.

Instead, the focus has been on three significant offseason acquisitions -- defenseman Tom Poti and centers Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov. The addition of the front-line NHLers, coupled with the move to a state-of-the-art practice facility, has created a vastly different atmosphere around training camp. A year ago, the team practiced in a community rink in Ashburn, Va., where they had sole use of the locker rooms only in the mornings, and trainers had to move all of the team's gear into rented trailers for storage at the end of each day. As for the roster, aside from Ovechkin and veteran goaltender Olaf Kolzig, the Caps were a who's who of third- and fourth-line pluggers. "We were vagabonds last year," Kolzig recalled.

Solidified in their new practice digs this season, Kolzig predicts players will stay healthier longer. They will work out more; they will feel better about themselves. Kolzig has been a Cap his entire NHL life. He gave up a chance to become an unrestricted free agent during the 2005-06 season, signing a contract extension so he could see the rebuilding process bear fruit.

"Oh yeah. I want to be here when this team peaks," Kolzig said.

Could this be the year of the peak after so many valleys?

The Caps, who finished 14th in the Eastern Conference last season with 70 points, have not been in the NHL playoffs since the 2002-03 season. Since that playoff appearance, they've finished 14th each of the past three seasons. Still, hope lingers.

"I was really encouraged by what I saw when we did have a healthy team last year," Kolzig said. "I was really looking forward to this year. I like our chances. It's getting old being done in April."

It's training camp, so it's a rare one around the NHL is not infused with optimism. Still, optimism has studiously avoided Caps camps in recent years, so its reappearance is welcome whether anyone else shares it or not.

In a meeting with fans on this day, owner Ted Leonsis will repeat for a group of fans what has become a kind of mantra around camp.

"The rebuild is over," the genial owner tells fans who respond with applause.

As they say, it's never over until the lady sings. In this case, the rebuild is only over when the standings say it is. And there's a long, rocky road between saying it is so and proving it; but in this new NHL, where fortunes are made and lost in the blink of an eye, this could be the Caps' turn to break from their own history.

Captain Clark

If there is one player who symbolizes the Capitals' emerging identity as a team on a mission, it's captain Chris Clark.

There is a tendency to suggest Clark is the NHL's quietest 30-goal scorer. But that wouldn't take into account the opponents he's sent back to the bench rubbing their jaws or shoulders, muttering, "Oh, so that's Chris Clark." Or the netminders who have fished pucks out of their nets likewise muttering the same.

He also might be the only NHLer to be host to a cadaver bone in his palate.

We know skeptics will suggest that having a cadaver bone is apropos for a Washington Capitals player given the team's deadly performances over the years. But we suggest the nature in which Clark managed to have a cadaver bone inserted in his mouth actually illustrates the intestinal fortitude of both the player and team he captains.

A little more than a year ago in a game against Boston, a puck deflected into Clark's open mouth. The puck did considerable damage, including crushing his palate bone.

Did Clark go down or call for a stretcher? No. He finished his shift in a game that was tied at 2. It wasn't going to help anyone if he went down, he told reporters later.

In the dressing room, GM George McPhee tried to stop owner Ted Leonsis from investigating.

"Don't look," McPhee said.

Leonsis looked. "It was the most gruesome thing you ever saw," he said.

But two games later, after having his mouth surgically repaired with the help of the cadaver bone, Clark was back on the ice and on his way to an improbable 30-goal campaign.

"I don't think we can say enough about Chris Clark," McPhee said. "We liked him a lot, but we also got lucky."

Pigeonholed as a fourth-line checker in Calgary, Clark scored 10 goals in each of his last three seasons with the Flames before the Capitals acquired him after the lockout. And it's not like the Caps broke the bank, giving up a sixth- and a seventh-round pick.

Clark had 20 goals in the first post-lockout season, and then, skating mostly with Alexander Ovechkin on the team's top line last season, bagged 30 more.

Cynics will suggest that anyone playing with a talent like Ovechkin might stumble on 30 goals. But Ovechkin is a scorer, not necessarily a playmaker, and Clark still had to get himself into position to produce those goals.

With the addition of offensive forwards Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov and rookie Nicklas Backstrom, Clark has been moved back down the depth chart. He'll start the season playing with Matt Pettinger and Boyd Gordon.

It matters not to Clark, and if you're coach Glen Hanlon, there is comfort in knowing you've got a Plan B if your Plan A comes up empty.

"I knew I could score," Clark said. "But I never got the chance I had the last couple of years."

In Washington, Clark is seizing the moment.

-- Scott Burnside

"To rebuild a team is a very difficult process," general manager George McPhee says. "When you're living it day to day, it's a difficult process. We want to be in the playoffs. It's time. We all want to be there."

When Hanlon took over and the team was stripped bare of virtually all veteran talent, there were traits the former NHL netminder wanted to introduce to the locker room.

"We wanted to be totally unselfish and we wanted to work very, very hard," Hanlon said. "We've preached and sold the hardest thing there is to sell in hockey, and that's hard work."

But you can only do that for so long. The rewards of working hard and being a close-knit team, while significant, cannot sustain a team if it does not win and has little hope of doing so.

"We felt we'd made some huge strides in terms of young players playing important roles," Hanlon said.

But the Caps needed more than just being hard-working, tough and speedy. "We needed to add skill on top of that base and we think we've done that," McPhee said.

If Hanlon is right and the team needs to create 25 more points than a year ago, the new additions should be a major step in that direction.

If you factor in Nylander's 26 goals with the Rangers and Kozlov's 25 on Long Island, the Capitals now have five 25-goal scorers in their lineup from a season ago, tying them with Carolina and Colorado for the most in the league.

Along with goal production, these new additions should also help bolster the team's woeful shootout record. Last season, the Caps were a league-worst 1-11 in the shootout, scoring just five times on 40 shots. The presence of Nylander (five goals on 13 shots), Kozlov (five goals on 13 shots) and top rookie prospect Nicklas Backstrom will take some of the pressure off Ovechkin, who was a miserable 2-for-12.

Former Calgary GM and long-time talent assessor Craig Button isn't necessarily sold on the Caps being a playoff team, but has great respect for the work Hanlon has done in laying the foundation.

"He pushes the players and they respect him and they have fun," Button said. "Nylander's a decent hockey player, Poti's a decent hockey player, Kozlov's a decent hockey player. Now you've got to get them all to mesh. It's important to get all those guys to come together as a group."

Speaking to this issue, Hanlon does another bit of math. Poti, Nylander and Kozlov represent three players out of 20 skaters the team will carry. "That's just three players," Hanlon points out.

The three veteran NHLers had career years last season. Are they likely to do it again? Maybe. Maybe not.

The math still tells you the rest of the players who have not been the subject of media reports -- including Ovechkin and the other Alexander, Semin -- must be better if the team is going to improve on its 14th-place showing in the Eastern Conference. Players like Matt Pettinger, who has 20-goal potential, and David Steckel, who has emerged as a top penalty killer, and Tomas Fleischmann, who will start the season playing on one of the top two lines with Ovechkin and Kozlov, must somehow cross the NHL Rubicon between "just happy to be here" to "I must get better to move this team forward."

Defensively, the challenge is no different.

The arrival of Poti, who led the New York Islanders in ice time last season and had 44 points, will take some pressure off Brian Pothier, who tried to do too much in his first season on the Caps' blue line.

There should be a ripple effect with young players Milan Jurcina, Mike Green, who figures to start the season playing with Poti, and Shaone Morrisonn maturing as a unit, perhaps playing fewer minutes, but doing more with them.

Some of those players played a lot of minutes simply because they had to, Hanlon said. "Now we need them to deliver real quality minutes. Like a real playoff team."

For a team that finished 26th defensively, it is a tall order. But stranger things have happened. During the preseason, the team gave up fewer than 20 shots in four of seven games and allowed an average of almost 10 fewer shots per game during the preseason over 2006-07.

Many NHL coaches break the season into five- or 10-game segments as a way of establishing goals and marking progress. Because the Caps lacked the kind of depth needed to compete against other teams, Hanlon eschewed that strategy. Until now. He won't say exactly what he's doing (how about 82 one-game segments, he jokes.), he just simply says, "We're preparing like a normal team now."

Captain Chris Clark recalls how in December the Caps were in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. They played hard and people around the league were raising their collective eyebrows. Then, the flu swept through the dressing room and there were injuries, including Kolzig, who missed 13 games with a knee injury.

"We just couldn't recover," Clark said. "We just didn't have the depth to combat everything."

Now, the depth appears to be present, not just in the form of the additions, but because those players who were here last season understand the ante has been raised. If, as Leonsis hopes, this is the end of the rebuilding period on the ice, he is equally hopeful this will mark a period of stability off the ice.

The Caps ranked 27th in the league in attendance last season despite Leonsis' open-door policy, both electronically and otherwise. The team's marketing strategy is forward-thinking and their communications department is considered among the best in the league. But the Caps must compensate for the fact many of their fans don't actually live in Washington, which means they must commute through brutal traffic to attend games at the MCI Center. In fact, the Caps have the lowest number of season-ticket holders who actually live in the city in which the team plays; rival fans often outnumber -- or at least out-shout -- Caps fans at home.

And, of course, there was the problem of the product on the ice.

"We were bad," Leonsis acknowledged to fans. "But we weren't stink-on-ice bad."

A matter of degrees, perhaps; but now, for the first time since the lockout, the blue-collar work ethic instilled by Hanlon has been buoyed by an infusion of talent via free agency. And fans are responding. "We're in really good shape right now," Leonsis said.

Leonsis was hoping to get to a 90-percent renewal of season-ticket holders -- not bad for a 14th-place club. He was also expecting season-ticket holders to approach the 9,000 level -- more than 2,000 fewer than at the club's peak. In a perfect world, the Caps would have 12,000 season-ticket holders.

But the dynamic is changing everywhere around the team, including in downtown Washington, where condos are being built and folks tired of the long commute are returning to the city.

Five years ago, the Caps averaged a paltry 50 walk-up sales per game. Since then, that number has turned around, and the Caps were fifth in walk-up sales last season.

Now, all the team has to do is respond.

Kolzig, who has seen the good, the bad and the ugly in his career with the Capitals, acknowledged it's crucial for the team to get off to a good start.

"I think it's really important. It's a bandwagon city. They come out when you're winning," Kolzig said. "And we've got to do that. We've got the pieces now."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.