With Michael Nylander in the past, the Capitals can build for the future

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

By loaning Michael Nylander to the American Hockey League's Grand Rapids Griffins, the Washington Capitals did more than just rid themselves of a distraction that had been lingering all season. The team with the best record in the NHL through Sunday's games also paved the financial way for both immediate and future improvement.

The Capitals gained the flexibility to make the kind of routine roster moves that Nylander's contract had made problematic and also cleared enough space under the salary cap to make a key addition before the trade deadline.

"We played the first 33 games with a 22-man roster instead of a 23-man roster," Coach Bruce Boudreau said, referring to Nylander, who last suited up for the Capitals in last spring's playoffs despite having the team's second-highest salary. "This gives us more room to do stuff, and it obviously frees up cap space."

The Capitals' first move was to recall touted defenseman Karl Alzner, the highest-paid prospect in the organization, from the minor league Hershey Bears on Monday. The next one could be to add some outside help. With Nylander off of the roster and his $4.875 million cap hit no longer counting against the $58.6 million payroll limit, the league's highest-scoring team now has the ability to get even better.

Nylander's departure also brings some closure -- for this season, at least -- to a delicate situation that often led to more questions than answers. Monday was no different.

General Manager George McPhee spoke to reporters at length for the first time about Nylander's predicament but offered few details about how the playmaking center went from a prized free agent signing in 2007 to banished from the team's Arlington practice facility last month.

"It was just playing style," McPhee said. "It just didn't work out. For lots of reasons, players excel in one place and don't in another. It just wasn't working for him or us last year."

Tension between Nylander and Boudreau built throughout last season as it became apparent that Nylander's patient style of play was incompatible with Boudreau's up-tempo system. Boudreau scratched Nylander eight times in an unsuccessful attempt to get the 37-year-old to conform.

On breakup day following the Capitals' elimination from the playoffs, McPhee said Nylander was told that he would not have a spot on this year's team and that he should make alternative plans.

"We just made it clear last spring that the year didn't go the way he wanted or we wanted and maybe it was time to look at something else," McPhee said.

The no-movement clause in Nylander's contract -- which allowed him to block any trade, loan or other roster move -- significantly limited the Capitals' options. "We haven't done it historically and we won't be doing it in the future," McPhee said of such clauses. "It's one of the reasons that allowed us to build a good team. When we were rebuilding, it allowed us to move players who didn't have those clauses and got young players and picks back."

Just a few feet away from the locker stall that had been stripped of Nylander's nametag and gear, players pressed reporters for details on Nylander's departure.

"I don't really know what happened," said fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom, who became close to Nylander during his rookie season. "He just went to Grand Rapids, right? His whole family was good to me. But this is the hockey business."

Captain Chris Clark said: "Since he hasn't been here, we haven't seen him in a couple of months as a group. I don't know if anybody has seen him outside of hockey."

For his part, Alzner was pleased that his future will now be determined by his play and not by a calculator.

"Now, if I do get sent down, I know it's because I'm not playing well," he said.

Capitals notes: Alex Ovechkin left practice with an undisclosed "sore body part" after about 15 minutes, Boudreau said. Asked if he expects Ovechkin to face the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday, Boudreau said, "He better." . . . Center Mathieu Perreault, who had one point in his previous 10 games, was reassigned to Hershey. . . . Kyle Wilson was recalled from the Bears and could make his NHL debut in Denver. . . . Goaltender Semyon Varlamov (groin muscle strain) will make the trip and resume practicing at Pepsi Center. . . . Boyd Gordon (back injury) returned to practice and reported making improvement.

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