The Washington Capitals are one game into the season and already the roster shuffling has begun. The coaching staff, hoping to tighten the team defense and find the right complement to Adam Oates and Peter Bondra on the top line, tried new forward combinations and spent much of practice yesterday getting those players in sync with the defensemen to prevent breakdowns around Washington's net.
The Capitals sent center Glen Metropolit, who skated at left wing on the top line in Washington's 4-3 opening night loss at Florida, to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine, shifted Yogi Svejkovsky to his spot and added Jeff Toms to the third line, where Svejkovsky had been playing. Metropolit will play center in Portland and is on a short list of forwards who would be recalled if needed.
Toms impressed team officials with his preseason play and his speed. He joins Andrei Nikolishin and James Black on a line that carries checking responsibilities but also is asked to chip in offensively. But goal scoring is the primary chore for Svejkovsky's new linemates.
"I'd like to be able to identify a player on the first line who can keep up with Peter Bondra and Adam Oates and complement them," Coach Ron Wilson said. "Two years ago we started the season with Oates and Joe Juneau and Yogi, and Yogi played really well until he got hurt. He should be able to play with Oates and Bondra and he adds speed to the line, too."
The Capitals also will likely make a move on defense today, with Ken Sutton eligible to clear waivers at noon. If he clears, Sutton, acquired from New Jersey in last week's waiver draft, would automatically be assigned to the minor leagues but could be recalled almost immediately. The Capitals could opt to go with just six defensemen for a while or choose to recall another defenseman from Portland, a team with NHL-ready players such as Jamie Huscroft or Rob Zettler. Right now, the Capitals are carrying 22 players, one under the roster limit.
Defensive lapses have troubled the team since the first exhibition game and, because the Capitals are not usually a high-scoring team, it's imperative that opposing clubs get few quality scoring chances. Wilson is trying to get his forwards to backcheck with more vigor, using Florida's Pavel Bure as an example.
Bure, although not known for his defense, used his speed to get back up ice in the Capitals' loss Saturday night, stripping Washington players of the puck several times and quickly making the transition to attack.
"We have to play harder as a core of defense than we did," Wilson said. "We let people stand in front of our net a few times. I'll hold up Pavel Bure as an example . . . that skill guys can backcheck hard, and it's something the guys on our top three lines have to do a better job of to help the 'D' by coming back hard and hassling people from behind.
"It's been a couple of defensemen who aren't getting the job done. They have to get the job done and this is a telling weekend for them. We've got four guys in Portland that you can bring up and play. Portland's got an NHL defense right now. If a couple of guys don't get the job done, then we've got to make a decision."
Wilson said the mistakes are largely mental, compounded by the forwards' lack of support. Much of yesterday's practice was focused on defending two-on-one breaks, with forwards appearing to communicate better with defensemen and getting back to help, then turning quickly up ice once they gain possession.
"It takes a little time to get in sync, but I think you have to get it down pat in the first five games," defenseman Brendan Witt said. "If you don't do well in the first 20 games you might be out of it. We've got a week of practice here to work on that kind of stuff and we have to take advantage of it."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Ken Klee was excused from practice yesterday to be with his wife, Robyn, as she gave birth to the couple's second child. . . . The Capitals signed defenseman Steve Shirreffs to a two-year contract yesterday. The 23-year-old will spend this season in the minors, but is viewed as an NHL prospect. . . . The team hopes to decide this month whether to renovate its practice facility at Piney Orchard or construct a new facility, possibly in Bethesda, Tysons Corner or Alexandria.