After weeks of training camp, and seven pre-season games, the Washington Capitals introduced their official 2007 roster on Tuesday. The 23-man list includes two goaltenders, eight defensemen, and fourteen forwards. So how did it all shake out, and what does the team look like?
A lot different actually.
The most significant changes are at forward. If you were hibernating and somehow missed it, Washington added Victor Kozlov and Michael Nylander in the off-season. Both players not only bring a marked upgrade in offensive talent, but a wealth of NHL experience.
At 6'5" and 235 pounds, Kozlov brings some much needed size and finesse with him, as well as 750 games of NHL pedigree. He skated in 81 games for the New York Islanders last year, and posted 51 points (25 goals, 26 assists). Kozlov's ability to play effectively at center or on the wing gives the Capitals some versatility, and the big Russian will be a great addition off the ice for Alex Ovechkin.
Nylander will be expected to chip in a point-a-game like he has since the NHL returned from the lockout. He will log a ton of ice time centering the top line, and be given every opportunity to put up numbers similar to the 162 points he posted in his last two seasons with the New York Rangers.
A native of Stockholm, Sweden, Nylander returns to Washington for a second tour of duty. He played 74 games for the Caps during the 2002/2003 and 2003/2004 seasons and all tolled, has played in more than 800 NHL contests. Like Kozlov, Nylander can also be a steadying off-ice influence for another new addition to the Capitals 2007 roster - Nicklas Backstrom.
Backstrom was the fourth overall selection in the 2006 NHL draft, and after signing a three year contract in May, he came into training camp looking to make an impression. Expectations were fairly high for the youngster, but he showed that he could hang with the top six forwards. He not only benefits from Nylander's off-ice presence, but his on-ice presence as well. Backstrom won't be expected to come in and play on the top line and on the first power play unit; he will likely see much better match-ups playing on the second line. He has all the skills to exceed at an elite NHL level, but a little bit of a 'growth' period is valuable for any nineteen year old rookie.
Three new forwards in the top six would be large enough, but the Capitals actually have four. Thomas Fleischmann battled through pre-season without a contract, and proved that he can play on one of the top two lines. Washington rewarded him with a new deal, and more importantly, a larger role on the team. Fleischmann has nothing left to prove in the American Hockey league, so 2007 is the year for him to stake his claim as a Capital.
Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin are the only two holdovers from last season's top six forwards. Those aren't significant changes, those are wholesale changes. Both Ovechkin and Semin should benefit greatly from the upgrade in offensive talent, and it will consequently improve the Capitals' depth.
Captain Chris Clark will be hard-pressed to duplicate his career best thirty-goal season last year, but he gives Washington some much needed scoring punch on the third line.
David Steckel surprised some people and will start the season in Washington and not Hershey. Steckel only saw action in five games last year, but he saw considerably more action this year in the pre-season, and was able to establish that his face-off ability was worth keeping around.
Eric Fehr was added to the non-roster injured player list, so that leaves Matt Bradley, Donald Brashear, Boyd Gordon, Brian Sutherby, Brooks Laich, and Matt Pettinger to round out Washington's four forward lines. The Capitals will likely only dress twelve forwards each night, so one or two of those players will be in the press box some nights.
The only major change to the roster on defense is the addition of free agent Tom Poti. Poti immediately jumps to the top of the depth chart and will also be pivotal on the top power play unit. He led all Rangers in ice time last year with an average of 25:42, and he may even see more time than that with Washington. His career high 38 assists last year is a number that the Capitals would love to see duplicated; that's thirteen more than any defenseman logged for Washington in 2006 (Pothier - 25).
The rest of the defense corps were with the team at some point last year - Shaone Morrison, Brian Pothier, Milan Jurcina, Steve Eminger, John Erskine, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz.
Look for Morrison to continue his meteoric rise to the top of the 'steady defenseman' pile and log more and more minutes at crucial defensive times. This guy just gets better and better, and at just 24 years old, his best years are still ahead of him.
Jurcina was brought over in the middle of last year from Boston where he wasn't getting any ice time. He responded very well to the added responsibility that he was given in Washington, and he will continue to log a lot of minutes.
Erskine, Green, and Schultz all saw time in Hershey last year, and are all still trying to prove that they deserve an every day start. Eminger was suddenly added to the injured reserve list, so two of the three will be given an opportunity to prove themselves each night. The Caps could do with Schultz being one of the three; at 6'6" and over 220 pounds, they could use the size upgrade.
In goal, there are of course no changes. Olie Kolzig enters his nineteenth season with the Capitals and will be expected to see the lion's share of the action. Kolzig was and is, the leader of the team; he has continually and consistently given his team a chance to win night after night. There's absolutely no reason to expect the upcoming season to be any different.
Brent Johnson will again be called on to back-up Kolzig when he needs a rest.
So that's the 2007 Washington Capitals squad - with eight guys starting in the season opener that didn't start in last year's opener, it's certainly a very different team. On the surface, the changes are all positive; now the Capitals just have to prove that cohesion and chemistry won't be an early issue.
If they can play together early, and earn valuable points, they'll be in good shape. With the off-season acquisitions and money spent, anything short of a playoff appearance would have to be considered a disappointment.
The quest starts on Friday night against the Thrashers in Atlanta.