Sunday, July 18, 2010

Went Camping...And Loved It

I feel the need to strengthen my firewall and put up the most indestructible online defenses I possibly can, for I fear the wrath of fellow life long, intense Caps fans. What I’m about to reveal is so blasphemous, so inexcusable, so shameful that some would probably believe it warrants permanent exile from the Washington Capitals community: I had never been to Kettler Capitals Iceplex (or Ballston Mall, for that matter) until last Tuesday.

Now before you all burn me at the stake because I can swim, remember I paid my fan dues during the lean years and even received my very own Joe Juneau blue away jersey as a Christmas present. I have a hockey stick with the signatures of the entire 1998 team. We used to have a ticket package of about 15 home games a year until 2003.  I wore 12 in every sport and on every team I played for Peter Bondra.  Have I won back your love and my credibility? Good.

What brought me to Kettler three times this week was the combination of live hockey deprivation, a fascination with 2009 first round draft pick Marcus Johansson, and a temporary glimpse into the future.  That’s right fans, it was Development Camp time.  I was familiar with a large portion of this year’s crop of campers, so I figured it was finally time to get in on the action and see what all the fuss was about.  And boy did I get it shoved in my face from Day 1.

Well, technically, I guess it was Day 2 of the camp.  The drill-centric sessions were a place for the more skilled players to really stand out, Johansson and 2010 first round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov in particular.  Each had supreme vision on the ice, able to show creativity even in the strict structure of the various drills.  They made plays within each activity that incorporated their line mates and kept a smooth tempo.  The skating drills were a superb showcase for players like 2009 third round pick Cody Eakin and Cameron Burt, a camp invitee who was probably the best pure power skater in camp.

The problem with drills is that you can’t notice the players with some sort of “X” factor.  Many players have skills and habits that only translate during games, and that is where the scrimmages came in.  Different players stood out when game play actually began, while others unexpectedly struggled at first.  Andy Miele is an invitee who jumped to the forefront in the scrimmages.  He has a combination of skill and grit that put him in a group of his own.  Johansson struggled to adjust to the North American game in the first scrimmage, but he quickly bounced back being one of the best skaters in the second scrimmage.  He looked like a man playing with boys.

Kuznetsov and 2009 second round pick defenseman Dimitri Orlov also made quite an impression during the scrimmage.  Kuznetsov drew positive attention for his swift skillset, but also drew some negative attention when he taunted Hershey starting goaltender Braden Holtby.  Holtby responded with a slash.  Head Coach Bruce Boudreau attributed it to Kuznetsov not knowing the unwritten rules of the North American game yet, and that scuffle seemed to work itself out as he and Holtby were joking around with each other at the final scrimmage on Saturday.

Three defensemen in particular stood out.  Orlov was one, with his pure skill really shining through.  He always looks so composed and comfortable with the puck, and he is able to retreat into defensive position quickly.  Another was Joe Finley, the Caps’ 2005 draft pick.  He is an incredible physical force, and it is impossible not to notice him.  He needs to work on him footwork a little bit, but his 6’8 250 lb stature lends itself well to his style of play, which is one the Caps are in need of.  The third was invitee Dustin Stevenson.  While nothing about his play particularly stood out, the phrase “great defensive play” often found itself leaving my mouth after he broke up an offensive chance.

Braden Holtby was hands down the best goalie in camp, but that was to be expected considering he is current third on the Caps’ depth chart at that position.  However, I was impressed with 2010 draft pick Philipp Grubauer.  The goalie is fresh off OHL and Memorial Cup Championships with Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler, and the Windsor Spitfires to end the 2009-2010 season, and he seems ready to challenge for a position in the system.  It is probably likely that he will return to Windsor in the fall, but no matter which level he begins the season he will most definitely be on the Caps’ radar.

This groups looks very solid.  There are plenty of talented, upcoming players at every position, particularly center.  Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Cody Eakin are the future at the dot, along with Hershey Bear Mathieu Perreault.  There is not enough room for all of them, which should push them to compete for the few spots open on one of the most elite teams in the league. 

For those tearing their hair out about the lack of a solidified second-line center, take a look at that list and remind yourself that they are or will be as good or better than the centers available on the over-priced market now.  I was a little nervous like the rest, but watching them this week put to ease any worries about the position.

The MVP of the camp would have to go to Marcus Johansson.  Whether it was in games or during the drills, he made beautiful, effortless play after beautiful, effortless play.  He played on another level than the other prospects.  It will be exciting to see what he will be able to do once he hits the ice for training camp with players of a higher caliber.  His skills may not quite be NHL ready, but they are definitely at least AHL ready.

This camp reaffirmed my previous beliefs that the Capitals know what they are doing when it comes to building through the draft.  Even with low draft picks for the last three years, George McPhee has created a pool full of talent for the organization to nurture, grow, and use to fill in needs throughout the season (whether that be in the form of injury call-ups or trades).  A long summer has been graciously interrupted, and we all must unfortunately twiddle our thumbs until we get our next glimpse of the 2010-2011 season in September.

(for more of my pics from camp, click here

I now leave you with why I am in love with Marcus Johansson

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