They are competing for scarcely a handful of jobs here in the Washington Capitals training camp, and most of the younger players realize they will probably not be wearing a Capitals jersey when the team returns home late this month.
"Competition is a lot tougher this year, but you have to come in with an open mind and hope for the best," said center Dean Evason, who also attended camp a year ago. Evason, drafted by the Capitals in 1982, is likely to go back to his Western Hockey League junior team, even though he is a hard-working, skilled player.
Breaking into the lineup of any NHL club has become tougher for younger players seeking a way out of junior or minor league hockey. Perhaps the Capitals team is not as difficult to make as the New York Islanders, but because Washington has stabilized its roster more than ever before, securing a place is tougher than ever for the newcomers.
"All of the guys who played well for us last season have their jobs until they lose them, until someone comes along and proves he can do a better job," said General Manager David Poile. "We've got some good, competitive young players here, but making the team is not going to be easy."
"Will Dean Evason play in the NHL this year?" Coach Bryan Murray posed the question. "I'd like to say he will. I like the way he's played so far in camp. Very impressive. But who is he going to replace on our club?" Listing the current talent on the Capitals roster, Murray didn't even try to answer himself.
Evason, like the other hopefuls, is trying to be philosophical while working for a break that could bring him to the NHL. "You've got to make your own job here, because everybody is fighting for the same spots," he said. "I felt they wanted us to come to camp in shape, not just to get in shape here, so I got ready for it".
Being in shape, instead of skating into condition over a week's time, is crucial for the Capitals, who play three consecutive nights of preseason games later this week. "Four days into camp, if you've got to play games, you have to be ready," Evason said.
Jim McGeough was also in training camp a year ago, and because he was not satisfied with his performance then is working double time now to earn a slot. With no junior eligibility remaining, McGeough will likely end up with the Capitals' Hershey farm club.
"I don't think knowing that there aren't many places on the Capitals changes your attitude at all," he said. "You've just got to keep working."
McGeough's work includes some adjustment to a new position. Originally a center, he is working the left wing, mostly with linemates Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin.
"The biggest thing I have to do is try not to crowd the other players," he said. "It's a lot different, but I'm working on it. You just have to work, and see if you get a break."
If he does not make the Capitals, Evason's initial reaction will be, naturally, disappointment. "In a way, it's discouraging, knowing there aren't many jobs," he said. "But the basic team they had last year, that worked so hard, is set, and even though in the back of your mind, you think, yeah, you want to show individually what you can do, you have to get back to the team effort. If I go back to junior, I can just go back and play the best I can."
Evason sounds almost too calm about the whole business, maybe because he experienced a junior team folding around him in 1981. "Three weeks before Christmas, we had no sticks, no tape. We were using skate laces to tie pads on," he said. "That was pretty depressing, hoping I'd get picked up by some team. I came to camp last year with my eyes popping out of my head. This is what every kid who plays hockey dreams of. Twenty guys have to get cut, there are fewer jobs, but I feel I've got a chance to show what I can do.
"Maybe during the season, who knows, if someone is injured, or not playing well, they'll know I can play."
The team was divided into three squads, A, B and C, which alternately scrimmaged each other. After Team B beat Team C, 6-5, it paraded around the ice with a makeshift Stanley Cup.
At a team dinner tonight, Murray and Poile selected veteran players to run a mock draft, with draftees making up the two teams that will square off Wednesday.
Murray, reviewing fitness tests for players, reported that nearly all tested stronger than a year ago, many better than last time the tests were administered in March. "Scott Stevens could only do 500 situps in 30 minutes," he said.