By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Staffan Kronwall knows he probably won't get many more chances to prove that he belongs in the NHL. So the 26-year-old defenseman is treating his opportunity with the Washington Capitals as if it's his last.
Kronwall was claimed on re-entry waivers from Toronto last week and could make his Capitals debut -- and his first appearance in an NHL game in nearly a year -- tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It's always good to make a first impression, but I don't feel any pressure," he said. "I feel I really don't have anything to lose."
That sentiment is shared by Capitals General Manager George McPhee, who plucked Kronwall from the waiver wire at the recommendation of his pro scouts in the hope that the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Swede is a late bloomer. McPhee estimates Kronwall will cost $87,000 since the Maple Leafs must pay half of his remaining salary. Kronwall is also scheduled to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season and can be sent to the minor leagues within a 10-game, 30-day window without clearing waivers.
"He's a big guy who can move the puck," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Kronwall, who is the younger brother of Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall. "We feel there's not enough puck movers on defense anymore."
A little more than a week ago Kronwall was the fourth-leading scorer for Toronto's American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. With seven goals and 18 assists in 42 games, his play had earned him a promotion to the big leagues. But the Capitals snagged him before he got there.
Kronwall arrived in Washington early last Saturday and has been practicing with the Capitals since. But he wasn't eligible to play in a game until his immigration paperwork and work visa were secured. All that was finalized Thursday, and he was placed on the team's active roster a short time later.
Kronwall's adjustment to his new surroundings has been eased somewhat by his prior relationship with fellow Swedes Michael Nylander and Nicklas Backstrom, who took Kronwall on a tour of Washington last week. Kronwall played briefly with Backstrom for Brynas IF Gavle in 2004-05 and has trained with Nylander in Stockholm.
"It's a great group of guys," Kronwall said, "and so far they have really opened their arms for me."
Capable of occasionally delivering a big hit, Kronwall gives the team an eighth healthy defenseman -- and Boudreau another option.
"He's a good skater who can move the puck," veteran defenseman Tom Poti said. "That's what our game is all about: making a good first pass and joining the rush. Competition among teammates is always good. It pushes guys to play better and be sharper."
Kronwall, who was drafted in the ninth round by Toronto in 2002, spent three seasons in the Swedish Elite League, where he played alongside his more talented brother in 2002-03 with Djurgardens IF Stockholm. "We were even partners for a few games," Staffan Kronwall said of Niklas, the Red Wings' first-round draft pick in 2000. "That was kind of cool. We're really tight and good friends."
Staffan Kronwall made his NHL debut with the Maple Leafs in October 2005 and appeared in 34 games that season, registering an assist in limited ice time. But a series of knee and ankle injuries pushed him down the organization's depth chart, and after spending all of 2006-07 in the minor leagues, he appeared in just 18 games for the Maple Leafs last season. Then in training camp last October, Kronwall was squeezed out by first-round draft pick Luke Schenn and the addition of free agent Jonas Frogren.
"It was tough for me in Toronto," Kronwall said. "I had a good start there and then I had some injuries. It's unfortunate, but I'm looking forward to getting another chance."
Capitals Notes: Alexander Semin participated fully yesterday and is expected to face the Lightning after missing a game because of an undisclosed injury. Semin practiced on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Backstrom. Viktor Kozlov, meantime, will likely miss his fourth straight contest because of a strained groin muscle. . . . Boudreau would only say "there's a chance" when asked whether rookie Michal Neuvirth will make his first NHL start tonight at St. Pete Times Forum.