If the Washington Capitals had their way, struggling winger Yogi Svejkovsky would be in Portland, Maine, playing 20 minutes a night in the minors, rediscovering his game. However, the 23-year-old cannot be demoted without first clearing waivers, and it is certain that virtually every team in the NHL would claim him.
So Svejkovsky remains in hockey purgatory, fighting for ice time. He will be a healthy scratch when the Capitals host Montreal tonight, the sixth time he's been scratched this season. Svejkovsky has not scored in his last 20 games and is having problems defensively as well--his plus-minus rating of minus-7 is among the worst on the team. The player who scored 50 goals and 85 points in 70 minor league games is averaging just nine minutes of ice time and has 18 shots on goal this season. He's managed to stay relatively healthy--injuries have plagued his professional career--but continues a battle to establish himself as an NHL player.
"Yogi hasn't played much, and he doesn't have the confidence to just handle eight or nine minutes," Coach Ron Wilson said. "And I haven't had the confidence in him to play him more than that. And with the margin of error for our team being so small, unfortunately it affects a guy like Yogi's play."
Svejkovsky, the 17th overall pick in 1996, entered this season with 17 goals and 29 points in 61 NHL games--solid production from a youngster. He appeared to be a rising star, but a series of ankle injuries and a concussion limited him to 42 NHL games over the last two seasons. It's too soon to evaluate what impact he will make at this level, though Svejkovsky says he has little doubt.
"It's been tough," Svejkovsky said. "We started good the first few games, then I got hurt and I didn't really come back in the lineup except for the fourth line, and at that time we didn't play that big of a role on the team, which is important, and I've never been in that position before and it's been a brand new thing to me.
"To tell you the truth, I don't feel like I'm in a scoring slump, because if you go down the league and look at the fourth-line guys, you've got to say everyone of them is in a scoring slump. I don't know what the situation is going to be, but obviously Ron doesn't have too much confidence in me right now, but I'm 100 percent sure I'm going to prove it. I'm going to get back his confidence, and hopefully I'm going to be able to prove it here and nowhere else."
General Manager George McPhee said he has no plans to deal the youngster, although it's conceivable Svejkovsky could be part of a package to land an established scorer at some point. McPhee is not shopping the 6-foot-1, 193-pound winger and believes Svejkovsky will score at this level. "What we have is a player who essentially lost two critical years of development and hasn't found his game," McPhee said. "He had two bizarre injuries and it takes some time to come back from that."
Svejkovsky had a mediocre preseason, scored a power-play goal on opening night, the ninth of his young career, and has not scored since. He played briefly with stars Adam Oates and Peter Bondra on the top line, suffered a minor groin injury and skated for a few games with second-line center Jan Bulis before injuring his shoulder in late October. Svejkovsky missed about three weeks and has done little since. The coaches want to see him continue to practice hard and to start driving harder to the net--where he's most dangerous.
"Maybe because of some of the injuries he's had he's been a little tentative to jump into that area," Wilson said. "And that's where he has to breakthrough, and he has to do it in practice so that it transfers over into a game. It just hasn't happened for him this year, and eventually it will."
Svejkovsky said he's intent on earning his way to a top line and back on the power play. He believes four or five games playing big minutes will help turn his season around. He knows he can still score goals, and score them in bunches.
"I'm going to prove it," Svejkovsky said. "Absolutely. I still have the touch. You don't lose it. I don't know what the situation is going to be in two or three games, but I'm going game by game and hopefully I'll get a chance to jump in and produce."