I believe that the moves I was following by email, phone and the web have helped put the Washington Capitals in position for some tremendous growth of our own. Combined with the energy and excitement of the uniform unveiling at Kettler Capitals Iceplex – and the draft that night in Columbus – it’s hard not to want the rest of the summer to race by.
Thanks to a heads up from George McPhee, I knew who we would be pursuing in free agency before I left for China. It was great to hear that three of those names will be joining us in the fall.
Free agency is a crazy time, as I’m sure many of you found while hitting “refresh” on your favorite hockey website or blog. I know it seemed frantic to me, perhaps even more so since I was so far away. What’s impressive to me is that amid that chaos, George and his team stuck to their plan, got what they felt we needed and did it all with contracts that will not hurt us competitively or financially down the road.
We went in with what we felt were clear needs at center and on defense. Specifically, we wanted players who could distribute the puck to our talented scorers up front – we were one of five teams with three 30-goal scorers last year, and it’s possible that Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Chris Clark can be even more dangerous if we do a better job of maintaining puck possession and distributing it to them in good position.
Michael is also a terrific competitor and a very hard worker. He keeps himself in great shape and is already talking about playing beyond this four-year contract. I think he’ll be motivated to prove that he deserved this contract, and he should be a terrific role model for our younger players.
Tom Poti is a veteran, puck-moving defenseman who should add a great presence to our defense corps. He’s a left-handed shot, which we needed, and can help on the power play. We ranked 24th in the league on the power play in 2006-07 despite having two players in the top 10 in power-play goals. As is the case in many situations for us, we have talent – we just need to augment it a little bit.
Viktor Kozlov was signed to a two-year deal, the shortest tenure of our additions, but he has a lot of potential for success here. Alex Ovechkin speaks very highly of him. They played well together at the Olympics and have represented Russia in other international competitions as well. Viktor scored 25 goals last year and can play either center or wing, giving us flexibility and offering Glen Hanlon a chance to experiment with lines during camp.
So in the end we got a center, a defenseman and a forward who can play either center or wing, all of whom are coming off career highs offensively. I was surprised, as I noted in my blog, that so many emails I received after our signings still focused on what we were still missing. It’s easier to complain, I suppose, than offer praise – once I noted it, the comments in my blog were overwhelmingly positive.
But to those who think we need something else, the best answer I can give is George McPhee’s, when someone asked after the Nylander signing if he was done: “We’re never done.”
In the weeks ahead and even once training camp and the season begin, we will be on the lookout for ways to continue to improve our team. We’re in position to take advantage of those possibilities as we continue to have a wealth of assets at our disposal, including young, talented players and a number of draft picks in the 2008 draft, considered to be the strongest in years.
We continue to see excellent strides being made by our players in Hershey and expect a few of the Bears challenge for regular NHL positions this year. After winning the American Hockey League championship a year ago, it was impressive to see the Bears once again appear in the Calder Cup final.
Some of our young talent will be on display this week at Kettler Capitals Iceplex during our summer development camp. It’s a treat to bring this event inside the Beltway for the first time – and I think the format is better than ever as well. Each day, from Wednesday through Saturday, will conclude with a 90-minute scrimmage – a perfect opportunity to see world-class hockey players in a beautiful setting. It’s a great excuse to escape the heat, visit our new training facility and pick up some new Caps gear. Best of all, like all of our workouts at Kettler, admission is absolutely free.
George told me going in that Alzner was the guy we wanted. In a lot of ways it was similar to last year, when we hoped Nicklas Backstrom would be available at No. 4. And although they play different positions and come from different sides of the world, the players are similar as well – driven, humble, smart and mature. I like what I’ve seen and heard.
In the second round of the draft we selected a pair of defensemen, Josh Godfrey from the Ontario Hockey League and Theo Ruth from the U.S. National Development Program. All three of these defensemen possess the combination of good size (at least 6’ 1” and nearly 200 pounds) and strong skating ability. There is a complete recap of the draft available at WashingtonCaps.com.
Meanwhile, on draft night, I got to see something truly special unfold at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Our uniform unveiling was a resounding success. Thanks to the 2,000 fans who showed their spirit; thanks to the alumni and current players who made the effort to be there; thanks to Comcast SportsNet for broadcasting it to those who couldn’t make it; and thanks to SportsTalk 980 for hosting a remote draft day show.
I love the new look, and to me seeing it on the players, in full gear, took it to another level. Red, white and blue – I think we can all agree – feels right for the Washington Capitals. The primary logo is reminiscent of the original wordmark, but with a modern feel that I like. And the shoulder patch incorporates the eagle and the Capitol dome, two powerful icons that people have come to associate with the Caps – I thought it was critical for us to carry those on in our new uniforms.
I knew we got it right when our players and alumni told me how much they liked it. Chris Clark couldn’t wait to get out on stage. And Mike Gartner sounded jealous of the new jerseys, even while wearing his classic No. 11.
We’ve offered fans a special discount to preorder jerseys, which will arrive in September, and the response has been impressive. Meanwhile, T-shirts and hats were flying off the shelves at Kettler on draft night. You can still get all sorts of new gear at the Kettler pro shop if you stop by development camp this week; if you can’t make it in person you can find items online at WashingtonCaps.com.
Everyone is quick to remind me – and last year’s Buffalo jersey sales prove it – that winning is the best way to make a jersey look good. There are no assurances in July, of course, but I like where we are. This has been an extremely productive off-season.
Scott Burnside, ESPN.com’s hockey writer, posted this a few days ago: “Slowly, quietly, GM George McPhee is building the Caps into a dangerous team in the east. Hard-working and tough already, the Caps added some offensive juice …”
Analyst and former NHL coach Barry Melrose noted: “The Capitals are much improved – without breaking the bank. Nylander had a great year for the Rangers, Poti is a solid addition on defense and Kozlov gives them depth. I think they’ve signed three of the top nine free agents available.”
A number of experts, websites and bloggers have given us high marks for our drafting and free-agent signings. It’s nice to see us included in these lists of “off-season winners,” but we know that October is when it really matters.
We hope you share in our enthusiasm. Our new season-ticket sales are ahead of last year’s pace more than 100% and our current plan-holders are renewing at a stronger pace than we have seen in recent years. Hopefully those of you who are not plan-holders will consider such an investment once the NHL schedule is released tomorrow.
We play in a great arena – the Verizon Center – which is undergoing significant upgrades this summer, including a one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art video board that should make the in-arena fan experience second to none. We recently moved into our best-in-class Kettler Capitals Iceplex training facility in Arlington. We have drafted well and enjoy a terrific relationship with our AHL affiliate in Hershey. We are blessed with some extremely skilled young players in Washington and continue to boast an outstanding core group of veteran leaders.
There’s a positive vibe around our franchise that we haven’t felt for a while – our patience appears to be paying off.
I’m excited heading into this week’s development camp, and excited about the arrival of some new names in the fall – both rookies (Backstrom) and veterans (Nylander, Poti, Kozlov). It will be great to see them all in our colors – red, white and blue.
I hope to see you at Kettler and Verizon in those colors as well.
Enjoy the summer.