Monday, January 09, 2006

The Capitals' motley crew

Almost everyone — myself included — picked the Washington Capitals to be one of the NHL’s worst team this season, a tidbit backed up by Mr. Jes Golbez’s handy preseason prediction graphic here.

And while the Capitals are hardly refuting the prognostications and are sitting on pace to tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins for last in the Eastern Conference, they also have not been as disgracefully terrible as Columbus, St. Louis and Chicago this season.

The fascinating thing about what Washington has done this season is the cast that they’ve used to be at least somewhat competitive. Pundits expected a wholly rookie roster in 2005-06, but — aside from Sasha Ovechkin, of course — it has been the team’s unheralded veterans who have kept the team from being a laughingstock. There are more 1970s birthdays there than you might think.

Of the 17 players who have played 30 games for the Capitals, only six are 25 or younger. At 35 and 36, Andrew Cassels and Olaf Kolzig are the team’s greybeards, as was expected, but journeymen Jamie Heward, 34, and Bryan Muir, 32, are logging big minutes on the Washington blueline.

Heward, in particular, is a fascinating story. He leads the Capitals in ice time with 24:20 minutes a game and is on pace to nearly double his career totals with 12 goals and 45 points. Not bad for a guy who has been out of the NHL for four years.

From an NHL.com story in December:
“The thing that made me better over there was the chance to play for Team Canada," Heward said. "I was in seven or eight tournaments. A lot of people don't believe it but in the Swiss League I was playing 35-40 minutes a game. Having played in Columbus where I was only getting seven minutes a game and not getting any better, the opportunity to go over there and work on some things was good for me. I think I've played pretty close to their expectations for me.”
Heward’s always been one of those guys I’ve watched play in the Spengler Cup and even the World Championship, and his impressive offensive skills always made me wonder why an NHL team hadn’t taken a flyer on him. He was a fantastic defenceman in the WHL for the Regina Pats and a first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1989, but as an undersized defenceman, never caught on in the NHL.

It’s amazing how similar his story sounds to that of Vancouver Canucks defenceman Nolan Baumgartner, who is enjoying a renaissance this season after playing fewer than 50 NHL games by age 29.

The increased importance on the power play is one reason you’ll see stories like this. (The amazing numbers gifted-but-tiny Los Angeles Kings defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky has put up can attest to that.)

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