Lepisto Tries to Make Lasting Impression

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C., Sept. 24 -- Four times last season, Washington Capitals prospect Sami Lepisto was promoted from the minor leagues as an injury replacement. Each recall followed a familiar trajectory: The defenseman shined in his first game, then struggled in subsequent ones.

As a result of the inconsistency, Lepisto, 23, was unable to secure a full-time job in Washington and now finds himself among three hopefuls battling for one of the final spots on the blue line as training camp enters its second week.

Six defensemen from last season's Southeast Division championship team are back. Mike Green, Tom Poti, Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz are locks to make it, but John Erskine and Milan Jurcina likely need strong camps to nail down a spot, leaving at least one, and perhaps two, jobs available for newcomers.

In the mix are Lepisto, Karl Alzner and training camp invitee Jakub Cutta. The three players had their first audition of the preseason Wednesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes at RBC Center, a 4-1 victory for the Capitals. Lepisto logged 18 minutes 27 seconds while skating with junior prospect John Carlson.

"This is a very important camp for me," said Lepisto, who had offseason wrist surgery and is entering the second of a two-year entry-level contract. "I'm not that young anymore. This is my chance to make the NHL."

To do that, however, Lepisto must prove he's ready to perform at a high level on a nightly basis, Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

"Overall, we have to believe that he's ready to play in this league," Boudreau said. "His first games [on a call-up] would always be great, but then there would be a big drop-off. He has to be at that level all the time."

Lepisto, a slightly undersized (6 foot 1, 195 pounds) two-way defenseman with considerable skill and some offensive upside, said he's aware of the criticism and believes experience is the solution. The Finn made his NHL debut last season and skated in seven games with the Capitals on four call-ups, notching an assist and a plus-minus rating of minus-1.

Through five days of camp, Lepisto has been solid and, just as importantly, is healthy for the first time since the middle of last season. He isn't sure exactly how or when he suffered the injury, but the fracture wasn't discovered until after the world championships, in which he stood out for Finland. In June, he underwent a surgical procedure that required doctors to remove some bone from his hip to repair the fracture in his wrist, he said.

"It doesn't hurt on the ice at all; it feels pretty good," he said, adding that the surgery sidelined him for three weeks and that he still experiences pain during routine tasks such as lifting luggage.

Even if Lepisto plays well in the preseason, he might get caught up in a numbers game. Erskine and Jurcina both have one-way contracts, and Alzner, a 2007 first-round draft pick, figures to get every opportunity to claim a spot. Lepisto, meantime, can be shuttled between Hershey and Washington without needing to clear waivers.

Boudreau said another consideration will be playing time. If it does not appear that Lepisto will earn significant minutes with the Capitals, the organization would rather play him 20-plus minutes a night in Hershey.

"He's still young. He's 23 years old, so he has to play," Boudreau said. "But he's very close to pushing people, and that's what the preseason is all about for him."

Capitals Notes: Goaltender Simeon Varlamov was outstanding, turning back 20 shots in the first period while Daren Machesney stopped 10 of 11 shots over the final 40 minutes. . . . Tomas Fleischmann scored two power play goals, the first of which he batted out of midair. . . . Alzner logged 22 minutes of ice time, second only to Jeff Schultz's 23:03. . . . Without Chris Clark in the lineup, Matt Bradley wore the captain's "C" on his jersey.

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