By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009
One prospect stands head and shoulders above all the others at the Washington Capitals' summer development camp. Literally.
Although Joe Finley is the biggest player in the organization at 6 feet 7 and 250 pounds, the 22-year-old remains somewhat of an unknown commodity some four years after being drafted.
The Capitals selected Finley with the 27th overall pick in 2005, enticed by his size, rugged reputation and mean streak. But the Edina, Minn., native elected to spend the next four years at the University of North Dakota, a rare choice for player drafted so highly.
"Guys of my size and stature don't necessarily develop as quick or put all the pieces together," Finley said of his decision to stay in school. "I have to work hard every day to get better. My game isn't where I'm a guy who steps right into the NHL. For me, it's still a process."
That process will enter its next stage this fall when Finley participates in his first NHL training camp.
He signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Capitals in April and is expected to spend his first professional season playing for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, though it's possible, if he manages to climb the depth chart on a deep Bears' blueline, he could earn a stint in Washington as an injury replacement.
For that to happen, Finley knows what he must do: become a faster, more agile skater with a stable center of gravity to complement his ability to land big hits. It's something he has been working on off the ice this week with team physiologist Jack Blatherwick and strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish.
"He's got some work to do, there's no question," assistant coach Bob Woods said. "But he's only going to get better, and he's got the attitude that he has to. That's half of it."
Finley also represents the Capitals' last chance to salvage something from the 2005 draft. Finley was chosen moments after Washington drafted Sasha Pokulok with the 14th overall pick.
Although 24 of the 30 picks that year have made their NHL debuts, Pokulok never appeared in a game and was not offered a new contract earlier this month. Whether Finley manages to accomplish what Pokulok never did is yet to be determined.
"Now he's a pro, and we'll see what we can do with him," General Manager George McPhee said. "He's got some good base abilities, and he's got some size. We'll see what he turns out to be."
The need to grow into his enormous frame was a big reason Finley chose to return for his junior and senior seasons at North Dakota. But he also wanted anther shot at winning a national championship and to earn his degree, he said.
Finley's senior year, though, didn't unfold exactly as he had envisioned. He suffered a concussion in October and ended up missing two months. He returned to spark a second-half surge, but the Fighting Sioux fell short of earning a fourth straight Frozen Four berth. He did, however, earn a degree in business management.
After signing him in the spring, the Capitals assigned Finley to Hershey. He played in only one game, yet made an impression anyway. On the second shift of his pro debut, Finley pulled off his helmet, dropped his gloves and squared off against Wilkes Barre-Scranton enforcer Paul Bissonnette, who has been in 53 fights in the AHL the past two seasons.
Bissonnette quickly gained the upper hand, pulling Finley's jersey over his head and pummeling him.
"I had touched up an icing on my first shift, and [Bissonnette] came and rubbed me out a little bit," Finley recalled. "I just figured he's a tough kid, and I wanted to show that I'm not scared of anyone and show the rest of the guys that I was willing to stick up for myself. To my distaste, I had my jersey over my head. It's my first pro fight, and probably won't be my last. You live and you learn."
McPhee added, "It certainly showed some moxie."
Finley said he doesn't fancy himself as a fighter -- he did rack up 181 penalty minutes in his only junior season -- but he recognizes that players of his size and skill set must play with an edge.
Nastiness isn't something Finley has to manufacture. As a junior at North Dakota, he was disciplined for a notorious incident in which he whacked the Wisconsin mascot, Bucky Badger, with his stick. Bucky, Finley recounted this week, had disrespected the Fighting Sioux's goalie during warmups
"I gave him a tap," Finley said with a smile. "That's about it. I'm not looking to goon it up. I'm just looking to stand up for my teammates and play good, physical hockey."