Coach Bruce Cassidy's long-anticipated experiment to balance the minutes of the Washington Capitals defensemen has begun in earnest. Cassidy played new arrival Joel Kwiatkowski extensively this past weekend in his first games with the Capitals and plans to continue leaning on what had been his club's third and least experienced defensive pairing.
Kwiatkowski and Jason Doig, journeymen who played for Cassidy in the minors, each topped 20 minutes of ice time in Monday's 3-3 tie in Boston. They received a heavy workload against Boston's top line at even strength and on the penalty kill. The Bruins' first line, led by Joe Thornton, scored all the team's goals and rarely played against Calle Johansson and Brendan Witt, Washington's top defensive pair. Cassidy has sought a way to reign in Johansson's minutes, with the veteran regularly topping 25 a game in the first half of the season, and appears set on testing Kwiatkowski, 25, and Doig, 25, in significant roles despite their modest pedigree.
"I talked to Calle last week, and with Kwiatkowski being in the mix I think he's capable of playing the minutes," said Cassidy, who is in his first season coaching in the NHL. "He's capable enough and he defends well enough. And Doig has earned it and we thought maybe for the next stretch here when we play a lot of games to try to get the minutes more in line, so we're not relying on Calle to play 26 minutes. And if it works out that way [with Johansson playing as much as normal], fine, but we've made a conscious effort to try to roll six [defensemen] a little more and we'll see how it turns out."
Witt, 27, a hard-hitting defenseman, played about 17 minutes Monday and Johansson, 35, played only 15 minutes, his lowest output of the season while healthy, and was not used on the penalty kill. With the Capitals clinging to a one-goal lead late in the game and under assault on the penalty kill, neither was on the ice. Witt and Johansson, both team leaders, might end up getting closer to 20 minutes a game, but the process likely will work itself out over the next few games.
Kwiatkowski has played just 37 NHL games and was acquired from Ottawa for what will likely amount to a ninth-round pick. He played 20 games for the Senators this season and was averaging 11 minutes, earning praise among scouts for his skating and puck control. Doig, signed this summer as a minor league free agent, has played just 59 NHL games since being drafted by Winnipeg in 1995, although he has performed well and added some toughness since being recalled from the minors on Dec. 3.
Cassidy said he is particularly inclined to play Doig and Kwiatkowski more against hulking, physical lines, like Thornton's.
"When you're young like that and haven't proven yourself, mistakes get noted more and your inexperience comes through sometimes," Cassidy said. "But we're going to give them the opportunity. We want them to play more. We want them to get minutes; maybe not 20, but 12 to 15. I think they both kill penalties well and we can allow Calle a little break there.
"I think when you look at Thornton, maybe Doig is a better matchup -- a big, strong guy -- so that's our thinking, too. It depends what you're looking at. If it's [Tampa's impish] Martin St. Louis, maybe it's Calle, but Thornton, [Glen] Murray and [Mike] Knuble play a lot so that was a bit of our thinking, just the size factor."
Cassidy is familiar with Doig and Kwiatkowski from the minors and his evaluation is one reason both landed in Washington. Cassidy also has given ample playing time to forwards Kip Miller and Ivan Ciernik, whom he coached in the minors, but said he is not showing favoritism to players he worked with in Grand Rapids, where he spent two seasons before getting hired here.
"I know I'm going to deal with that stuff about bringing in former players," Cassidy said. "But most coaches, if they've done something in the past, they remember it. I've always been really loyal to my players if they played hard for the team, and you don't forget who you coached."
Capitals Notes: Winger Dainius Zubrus skated yesterday for the first time since suffering a concussion Friday night. Zubrus, who has a history of head injuries, is not cleared for contact drills but said he is feeling better and hopes to play Saturday in Montreal. "I feel good," Zubrus said. "I don't want to jump too far ahead, but I am planning for Saturday." . . .
Defenseman Sergei Gonchar felt sore and did not practice, but Cassidy said he expects the league's highest scoring defenseman to play tonight. Miller missed practice with the flu, but could also play. . . . Cassidy said he expects goalie Olaf Kolzig to start the next five games heading into the all-star break. . . . Carolina, the defending Eastern Conference champion, has lost seven straight games and has given up the first goal in 17 of its last 21 games. The Hurricanes would be 11 points behind the Capitals with a loss tonight. "They're going to be hungry coming in here," Cassidy said. "At the same time they can't be very confident when they haven't won a whole lot."