By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
For 38 games at the end of last season, Michael Nylander watched the Washington Capitals. He watched as the Capitals climbed the Southeast Division standings to vault themselves from the NHL's basement to the franchise's first playoff berth in five years.
This wasn't the same team that had made Nylander its prime offseason acquisition in the summer of 2007. The Capitals had found their way, and they had done it without the free-flowing, veteran center.
"It was great to see the team win and do everything they did," said Nylander, who missed 42 games last season because of a torn rotator cuff. "But as a player it was hard to be on the sidelines when that's happening. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to help but I just couldn't."
But yesterday at the Capitals' annual media luncheon at Verizon Center, there were no signs that Nylander's prolonged absence from the ice has affected his return to the lineup or the Capitals' chemistry.
His shoulder feels strong. His timing is coming back, as evidenced by Nylander finishing as the team's second-leading scorer in the preseason with seven points (two goals, five assists).
"It seems to have rejuvenated him not playing the last half of last year," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, who added that he was never worried about Nylander being physically prepared for the start of training camp.
"He's playing a lot younger and a lot more determined," Boudreau said. "At the end of last year when we were playing pretty good, he was almost an afterthought in people's minds. Not in my mind, but in other people's minds. . . . He's out to prove he's an elite player again."
Nylander's scoring prowess has never been much of a question -- he was the Capitals' second-leading scorer before undergoing surgery last year, despite essentially playing with one arm in December and half of January.
But because he's in the second year of a four-year contract with a salary cap hit of $4.875 million, Nylander, 36, became the center of trade rumors in several Canadian publications.
In addition to the financial considerations, the speculation stemmed from questions of whether Nylander still fit with the Capitals.
When Boudreau took over he created a full-speed, straight-ahead type of offense that allowed the team's young stars to zoom up and down the ice, and Nylander is known for his east-west, weaving style of skating. He's unpredictable with the puck or even without it. Right wing Chris Clark, who will likely start the season alongside Nylander, said he just tries to keep an eye on Nylander and his stick on the ice.
"I haven't found the system [to playing with him] yet," Clark said. "I think the more games we play together the easier it will be. It's getting easier to know a little bit what he's going to do, where he's going to go and where I should go. . . . I do think whoever plays with Michael consistently will benefit from how he plays."
Capitals Notes: Alex Ovechkin appears to be nursing a sore upper-leg muscle/groin and left practice early yesterday. A team official said Ovechkin is expected to play in the season opener Friday at Atlanta. . . . General Manager George McPhee said the team simply didn't have room on the roster for defenseman Karl Alzner and forwards Chris Bourque and Quintin Laing, who were sent down to Hershey on Monday in the Capitals' final round of cuts. He added that the Capitals believe Alzner, the team's first-round draft pick in 2007, will benefit from playing significant minutes with the Bears to start the year. "He just needs a little more experience and he'll be ready to go," McPhee said. "We expect him to be a top four defenseman -- probably this season."