Washington Capitals Officials See Future With a Visit to See Hershey Bears in American Hockey League Playoffs

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

HERSHEY, Pa. -- A manic, towel-waving, capacity crowd of more than 10,000 packed Giant Center on Saturday night to cheer the Hershey Bears in Game 3 of the Calder Cup finals, the American Hockey League's championship series.

Not everyone came to be entertained, though. Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee, Coach Bruce Boudreau and three of the organization's pro scouts were there on business. They sat high above the ice, diligently dissecting the players in the maroon and white uniforms, discussing who among them is ready to make the jump to the big leagues.

Last summer, the Capitals' roster remained mostly intact. But this offseason could see significant turnover. Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov are contemplating lucrative deals in their native Russia; enforcer Donald Brashear may follow them out the door; and Brent Johnson might be the odd goaltender out in a crease that has become overcrowded.

Could one, maybe two, be replaced from within the organization, by a Bear? McPhee hopes to know the answer after evaluating Games 3-5 of the series against the Manitoba Moose in Hershey this week. Hershey took a 3-1 series lead with a 2-1 victory Sunday night.

"Go back and look at the last five Calder Cup championship teams," Boudreau said. "Then look at how many of those players are in the NHL now. You'll see that there are always some. This is the second-best league in the world, so there's got to be good players. We don't want to overlook them."

Boudreau knows firsthand what an extended run in the AHL playoffs can do for prospects on the cusp. He was Hershey's coach in 2006 when the Bears captured the storied franchise's ninth title. Seven players from that team, including Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann and David Steckel, are now core players in Washington.

The Capitals hope this season's crop proves to be as bountiful.

"We think we have players that can step in next year," McPhee said.

On Saturday, the contingent from Washington was particularly eager to gauge the progress of John Carlson, a first-round draft pick last June.

Carlson, a two-way defenseman, earned a longer-than-expected look in training camp last September before he was sent to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League to play for former Capital Dale Hunter. The 19-year-old blossomed there, racking up 76 points (16 goals) in 59 regular season games before notching 22 points (seven goals) in 14 playoff contests.

After the Knights were eliminated in April, Carlson was assigned to Hershey to get his first taste of life in a pro league. Typically, players in Carlson's situation do more watching than playing. Carlson, though, is anything but typical. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound native of Natick, Mass., jumped right in and has suited up for eight of the Bears' past nine games.

"For a young guy, he's very composed and has a lot of confidence, which you love to see," Hershey Coach Bob Woods said of Carlson. "They're going to give him a serious look. This experience right now is only going to help him. Look at how Green shaped up. He went through the same process, through two Calder Cup runs, then made the step."

Carlson hopes one postseason run with the Bears will be enough for him. But if it's not, he'll start next season in Hershey instead of returning to juniors, McPhee said.

"My goal is to be in Washington next year," Carlson said, "and I'm going to do whatever it takes to get there."

Karl Alzner also will be scrutinized by McPhee and his staff this week. After appearing in 30 games for the Capitals, Alzner has convinced them of his ability; on this trip, the 20-year-old defenseman needs to assure them he has completely recovered after missing four weeks with the first documented concussion of his professional career. Alzner returned to the lineup Saturday and afterward reported no ill effects, saying, "I think it's all right."

Although Alzner is a virtual lock to join the Capitals next season, cracking the lineup is not guaranteed for anyone else. Topping the list of those expected to garner serious consideration for a roster spot in September are Carlson, goaltender Michal Neuvirth and forwards Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin and Oskar Osala.

Neuvirth has been one of the Bears' best players in the playoffs, and he put an exclamation point on his stellar postseason Saturday. The 20-year-old stopped all 28 shots to stymie the Moose, the Vancouver Canucks' AHL affiliate. The shutout was Neuvirth's fourth in 19 games and lowered his goals against average to 2.00, the third-best average in the playoffs.

If Johnson is not re-signed, that would leave Neuvirth to battle Simeon Varlamov and José Theodore for two spots in Washington. All of the goalies have been told that the No. 1 job is up for grabs.

"We've never really seen them as different in terms of what they should be capable of someday," goalie coach Dave Prior said of Varlamov and Neuvirth, who were drafted 11 spots apart in 2006. "They just have different ways of getting it done."

As compelling as the goaltending battle promises to be, so, too, is the case of Giroux. The 27-year-old has three goals on his scant NHL résumé. In 12 games with the Capitals, Giroux misfired on several scoring chances and wound up with just a goal and an assist. But the winger was virtually unstoppable in the minors, amassing a league-best 60 goals in 69 games. Giroux's combined regular season and playoff-goal total of 74 (after Saturday's game) is an AHL record.

The knock on Giroux has always been that his skating stride doesn't complement his world-class shot. His minor league goal total, however, has already attracted offers from overseas teams and will likely make the pending free agent popular on other NHL teams. That is, if the Capitals don't lock him up first.

"Look at all the guys who have scored that many goals," Boudreau said. "They eventually play. You can't discount him. He knows how to score and those guys are hard to find."

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