Capitals’ Rookie Camp ends with annual Caps-Flyers game

Some people dread the coming of winter.  For people who love the outdoors, the beach, and summer fun and, if you’re young enough, summer vacation, the changing of the seasons means the end of an era.  You start trading in your shorts for jeans, Aloha shirts for parkas, sandals for snow boots, and bathing suits for school bags.  For some, colder weather just means fewer leaves on the trees, homework, and eventually shoveling snow and avoiding black ice on the roads.

As much as I would consider myself a beach bum, this summer has been too long and too hot.  I cannot wait for the leaves to start changing color because it means hockey is coming.  While a little ice hockey Development Camp in mid-summer is fun, it only whets the appetite for another hockey season.  Rookie Camp and then Training Camp are all teasers, trailers for the big movie, but it is there you get a glimpse of what is to come, and sometimes you can see what is in store for the team 2 and 3 years ahead.  That can be easy to miss in the anticipation of the main event.

I was fortunate enough to be able to get off work yesterday and watch the Washington Capitals rookie game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Kettler Capitals IcePlex.  I went hoping to get a glimpse of what is in store for the team’s future.  It was great to see the little practice facility filled to capacity and the fans cheering.  It was a standing-room crowd.  I know because I was standing, crowding along the back wall to watch the Caps win 4-3 on a last-minute goal.

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I got to see the kids go out and play, trying to make their mark.  I got to see center Marcus Johansson (left) show why people are picking him to make the team this year.  Johansson does all the little things right.  He has excellent vision and awareness on the ice.  He forechecks, he backchecks, he draws penalties, he uses his body to shield the puck, he has great hands in traffic, and he has a decent shot.  More than anything, he has the ability to get the puck on a teammate’s stick from his backhand, across the ice, and on the tape.  Not just on the tape, on the tape in the wheelhouse and with enough space and time to shoot.  He did that to the tune of two assists yesterday.  Whether or not he makes the team is still up in the air, he has to be able to do these things against grown men starting tomorrow, and do them consistently.  If he makes the team, one could expect him to post 10 goals and 30+ assists as an NHL rookie while playing solid defense.  That sounds like a 3rd line center to me.

I also got to see the evolution of forward Stanislav Galiev.  When I first saw him at the Capitals Development Camp, I saw a kid who thought shoot first, shoot second, then maybe pass third.  On the ice today, I still saw shoot first, but he’s starting to think pass second:  he made a couple of nice passes during the game.  He also showed tenacity, a willingness to go hard into the corners or throw around what little weight he has to knock an opponent off the puck.  That same tenacity is displayed by great players like Alex Ovechkin and Martin St. Louis.  Galiev looks like he could be a valuable scoring winger in a few years, and that willingness he has to crash the net resulted in him scoring the first goal of the game.

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Another player that was sometimes fun to watch yesterday was Cody Eakin (left).  A smallish young center, Cody will be captaining the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League this season.  A steal at the 85th selection of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Eakin showed why he will be an excellent scoring forward in the NHL in a few years.  He was a consistent threat in the offensive zone throughout the game, handling the puck well and positioning himself to be able to make a play, including a nice assist on a powerplay goal.  It was his last minute backhander that won the game for the Capitals rookies, 4-3, a great individual play that showcased both his individual skill (the goal was unassisted) and his passion for winning.  The dark side of his game is his strength.  Only 19, Eakin was out-muscled on the play that let the Flyers tie the score in the second period while shorthanded.  Eakin will likely still get the chance to stay throughout all of Training Camp and even get into a preseason game or two, but he needs more time to get bigger and stronger before he makes the NHL.  It’s a shame he can’t play in the AHL this year, but he will get another chance to dominate the WHL this season, win World Junior gold, and maybe even win another Calder Cup this spring.

A few other players had good games, like winger Dmitri Kugryshev.  Kuger handled the puck well and made a few good passes.   He was not a consistent presence during the game, but he showed flashes of what he could be in a couple years.  He had an assist on Godfrey’s second goal, a combination that may repeat itself in Hershey a few times this year.  Defenseman Dustin Stevenson had a strong physical game and even had an assist on the first goal after crashing the net from the point.  Even though he couldn’t shake the memory of another great player to wear #66 (you know, Milan Novy), he had a nice game and could be a fine addition to the Hershey Bears backline this season.  D-man Samuel Carrier also had a nice heads-up defensive play, batting the puck out of mid-air away from the crease to preserve the game.  I also can’t imagine what kind of pressure Anton Gustafsson is under playing at Kettler, where a picture of his dad is on the wall.

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Josh Godfrey (right) came around in the second period after a shaky first.  Godfrey was billed as an offensive defenseman and he was drafted high in the second round in 2007 in part because of his blistering slap shot.  In the first period, though, he was having trouble handling the puck and being in position on offense.  It was during a powerplay in the second, though, that I saw it click.  He was putting himself in position and was getting himself to the puck and making smart plays, and it resulted in him blasting a slap shot past Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky midway through the game to put the Caps ahead 2-1.  On a powerplay in the third period, he launched another rocket from the point to torch Adam Morrison for a 3-1 lead.  Godfrey was making a case for himself to stay in Hershey this season.  He will have to be consistent to do that, but he has the pieces to be a good professional defenseman.

Many Caps fans were interested in watching defenseman Joe Finley.  Big Joe has been battling his way back from a freak injury and has been maturing into an adult over the past year.  He will never win fastest skater, but he looks like he has a good idea of where to be on the ice to make a good defensive play.  He uses his size and strength well and is opportunistic in taking opponents out of the play.  He will need to work on his awareness and hands when he has the puck, but that is something he will have time to work on in Hershey this year.

Center Trevor Bruess showed great passion for the game, hustling on every play and getting into a fight.  Bruess was perhaps too eager for that fight, as he got an extra penalty on the play and was outmatched by Flyers prospect Zac Rinaldo.  Bruess is rough around the edges and will certainly be spending time in the minors, but it was nice to see him having so much fun just being back on the ice.  That is, after all, why grown men play hockey.

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