The Washington Capitals' woeful 2001-02 season did little to enhance the organization's luster, but the team's failure to qualify for the playoffs has provided unexpected dividends this season.
For the first month of the season, a team's positioning for waiver claims reverts to last season's standings, and the Capitals (8-6-1) were the most active team in the league, taking three players, two of whom -- defenseman Rick Berry and winger Andreas Salomonsson -- are playing a key role in the team's 3-0 run. General Manager George McPhee also made two shrewd trades, bringing established forwards Mike Grier and Michael Nylander to Washington, ending a month that could affect the team for years to come.
McPhee and his staff made a conscious decision to scout as many regular season and exhibition games as possible early in the season, hoping to capitalize on the waiver position. Berry, 24, has been a revelation, playing 16 minutes a night against stern opposition and becoming the most physical of Washington's defenders. Salomonsson, 28, has played on scoring and checking lines, kills penalties, and, although without a goal, he has earned Coach Bruce Cassidy's trust. The other player taken off waivers, defenseman Alex Henry, 23, is more of a project, on a minor league conditioning assignment after playing just one game and still adjusting to his massive 6-foot-6, 232-pound frame.
"We saw players that were available that we liked and were obviously an upgrade, so we put claims in," McPhee said. "And given where we were [in waiver position] it helps. But I guess we got lucky, too, because there were some teams that passed on these guys that probably shouldn't have. Rick Berry, for one, could help a lot of teams."
Executives around the NHL were surprised when Pittsburgh left Berry, the 55th overall pick in the 1997 draft, unprotected in the preseason waiver draft. Washington claimed him and he has played 12 straight games, becoming one of the team's steadiest defensemen. Berry has matched up against such stars as Eric Lindros and Mario Lemieux and is one of few players on the team to punish players for hanging around the crease.
Salomonsson, who had a distinguished career in Europe, struggled to cope with the North American game with New Jersey last season and the Devils put him on waivers early in the season to return him to the minors. He has become a regular in Washington's lineup, able to alter his role and remain defensively responsible.
"We were taking chances on these guys," Cassidy said. "Somebody got rid of them for a reason, and you never know what that reason is. Rick Berry had a chance to go in there and play with an edge and he's young, he's a stay-at-home guy and he's gotten better with each game. Salomonsson is pretty steady, he's really good away from the puck and does all the little things well. We're still waiting for him to maybe catch fire offensively, but they've both given us some quality minutes."
This influx of younger players has expedited a youth movement that began with the trade of 39-year-old Adam Oates to Philadelphia in March. A host of aging players who finished last season with Washington -- Ulf Dahlen, Sylvain Cote, Joe Sacco, Dmitri Khristich, Franisek Kucera, Rob Zettler, Benoit Hogue -- are no longer with the Capitals.
McPhee has also sought youth in his trades, acquiring Grier, 27, for two draft picks and dealing Chris Simon and Andrei Nikolishin, older players without a future here, for Nylander, 30, who has been stellar as the team's second-line center, a playmaker who could form a lasting bond with winger Peter Bondra and has assisted on four of Washington's last seven goals.
Grier has been a perfect complement to Jeff Halpern and Steve Konowalchuk on the checking line, taking Dahlen's spot. "Mike Grier is so underrated," Konowalchuk said. "He goes out and wins every battle." Grier has been one of the team's most effective forecheckers, is an aggressive penalty killer and, though unlucky around the net lately, has scored 20 goals before.
"You never know which way trades and acquisitions are going to go, but certainly these ones have made our team better," McPhee said. "We like what they do on the ice and we like them as people. They're good in the room as well. So far so good."
Capitals Notes: Center Brian Sutherby was sent to the minors on a conditioning assignment, played for Portland yesterday and will be back with the Capitals for practice today.