By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
At 6 feet 5, 230 pounds, Viktor Kozlov towers above his new teammates. But an enormous frame isn't the only reason the Washington Capitals forward has stood out from the crowd during training camp.
Kozlov has shown the rare ability to control the puck in traffic, distribute passes with a marksman's accuracy and use his rangy reach to disrupt opponents -- all while operating at top speed.
The most intriguing revelation about Kozlov's game, though, is how it seems to be meshing with left wing Alex Ovechkin's.
"Alex is a great player, very talented," Kozlov said of his friend and fellow Russian. "It's always your wish to play with these types of players. You just give them puck and stay away from them."
He may get his wish. Yesterday, Coach Glen Hanlon acknowledged that Kozlov would center one of the Capitals' scoring lines, for now ending the debate about which position the 32-year-old will play in Washington. During his 12-year NHL career, Kozlov has played left wing, right wing and center. He was signed to a two-year contract in July.
"I don't want to create confusion in his game," Hanlon said. "I want to look at him as one of our top centermen. I want to give him that opportunity. At the end of five or six games you have decide whether this is going to work or not."
Although Hanlon wouldn't divulge the specific line combinations he'll deploy during the regular season, Kozlov has spent much of camp skating almost exclusively with Ovechkin, who scored 52 and 46 goals, respectively, in his first two seasons, despite having never played with a center of Kozlov's ability.
Kozlov and Ovechkin trained together for six weeks this summer in St. Petersburg, Russia, along with other Russian-born NHL players. The two also skated on the same line during the Turin Olympics.
"It's good because we speak the same language," said Ovechkin, who celebrated his 22nd birthday yesterday. "We talk a lot about what we must do in the defensive zone and in the attack zone. Everyday we are getting better."
Meanwhile, Michael Nylander, the Capitals' more significant offensive acquisition this summer, has been centering a line with left wing Alex Semin, the club's second most dangerous offensive player behind Ovechkin. If those combinations remain intact -- there's no guarantee they will -- that would almost certainly mean Nicklas Backstrom, the club's No. 4 overall pick in 2006, will move from center to the wing this season. Backstrom, in fact, skated on the right side of Nylander and Semin yesterday.
"It's not the worst thing," Hanlon said of Backstrom shifting to the wing. "The good players can play. The more positions a guy like Nicklas can play, it gives him different looks. You can never have too many centers on your team because it gives you so many difference ways of putting together your lines."
Capitals Note: Defensemen Karl Alzner and Josh Godfrey and right wing Francois Bouchard were returned to their junior teams yesterday.