By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006
HERSHEY, Pa. -- George McPhee meandered his way across the Hershey Bears' locker room shaking hands and offering congratulations as music thumped from the stereo on Tuesday night.
The Bears had just clinched a berth in the American Hockey League's Calder Cup finals, and McPhee, the general manager of the Washington Capitals -- Hershey's parent club -- was as joyful as the minor leaguers who whooped and hollered around him. Considering the payroll constraints imposed by Capitals ownership, a strong minor league system could prove to be McPhee's most valuable asset as he attempts to shepherd the Capitals back to respectability.
"It means a lot to us, because we have a plan in place and it's working," McPhee said.
Friday night in Milwaukee, the Bears, whose core is composed primarily of young players collected during and after the Capitals' salary purge two years ago, will face the Admirals in a best-of-seven series for the championship of the AHL, the second-highest professional league in North America.
The plan McPhee referred to was devised as Washington's star-laden roster foundered during the 2003-04 season. Later that year, he dealt eight high-end veterans for prospects and picks. Then, in April 2005, the Capitals switched their minor league affiliation from a team in Portland, Maine, to Hershey, a 130-mile drive from downtown Washington. Bringing the farm club closer permits McPhee to monitor the prospects' progress and allows the team to shuttle players back and forth more easily.
Many of the Bears already know the route from Hershey to Washington quite well. Forwards Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Beech, Brooks Laich, Dave Steckel and Boyd Gordon and defenseman Mike Green spent varying amounts of time with the Capitals last season. Based on their play during the Bears' playoff run, all of them will be expected to vie for increased playing time in Washington next season, if not full-time jobs.
"There are going to be guys in the Capitals' training camp," Hershey Coach Bruce Boudreau said, "whether it's Gordon or Green or whoever, guys who are the cusp of making it in the NHL full time, their defiance to let someone beat them out for that job is going to come from winning down here."
At least that's the plan.
"Look at the Nashville Predators," Boudreau said. "They had a fabulous year. Their [AHL affiliate, Milwaukee] won the Calder Cup two years ago. Look at the Philadelphia Flyers, they won the Calder Cup last year, and they are going to be a force for years and years. Winning at this level is such a huge steppingstone and a huge part of the learning curve. Because unless you've won before, you don't know a) what it takes; or b) how it feels."
An NHL scout who last summer was skeptical of Washington's prospects said the Bears' postseason success has forced him to reconsider his outlook, although he doesn't predict any of them to become stars at the next level.
After rookie of the year candidate Alex Ovechkin, "I don't think they have a blue chip per se, but they have a lot of players who are going to play [in the NHL], like [forwards Matt] Pettinger and [Brian] Sutherby did this year," said the scout, who requested anonymity because he doesn't want to harm future dealings with the Capitals. "I don't know if any of them will be all-stars, but they have the potential to be above-average players."
The Capitals' abundance of prospects can help in other ways, too. Washington's most pressing needs are a first-line center, a defenseman to quarterback the power play and a goaltending prospect. Because majority owner Ted Leonsis has said the team won't pursue any expensive free agents this summer, McPhee's best option may be to leverage his young players in trade talks.
Any such deals, however, are still weeks away. These days, the Capitals are focused on the Bears. On Tuesday, McPhee and Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon were joined by about two dozen front-office employees who traveled to Hershey's Game 7 victory over the Portland Pirates.
"It's real important for the Capitals to develop players who've played in playoff situations and delivered in big games," said Fehr, who scored the winning goal in overtime. "These games are helping me learn to deal with pressure situations. The farther we go, the more experience we get, and the better chance we have of playing in Washington next year. This is huge for bonding, too."
Added Green: "Washington is on the right track. It all starts down here, and hopefully, this group can take this experience to Washington. It's been a good run here in Hershey, but nothing has been accomplished yet."