When George McPhee was the assistant general manager of the Vancouver Canucks in the mid-1990s, he sat at the draft table when the club selected Michael Peca, whom the organization believed would blossom into a hard-hitting, team-leading dervish at both ends of the ice. Two-and-a-half years ago, McPhee was again at the draft table, this time as general manager of the Washington Capitals, when another center captured his eye.

McPhee saw much of Peca -- now an all-star and team captain of the New York Islanders -- in Brian Sutherby, another lean and physical player with a commanding presence and a will to win. McPhee watched Peca regularly in the minors before he was eventually traded to Buffalo, and monitored the steady progress as the prospect grew into his body, became comfortable as a professional and reached his offensive potential. Sutherby has taken those same steps this season with Washington, establishing himself in the NHL and earning a bigger role with the team.

"We're very happy with Brian," McPhee said. "When we first drafted him we considered him to be a bigger Mike Peca, and, like Mike, he's very conscious defensively at a young age. A lot of kids don't have that understanding of the game, and either they don't develop it, or it takes a while to develop it. But this kid has that, and when kids have that responsibility it says a lot about them and the way they play and what they can bring to your team. Brian brings great character to our team."

Sutherby, 20, selected 26th overall in 2000, played seven games for the Capitals last season before being returned to his junior team for more seasoning. He came to training camp in September intent on winning a job as Washington's fourth-line center but was derailed by an early injury. Today in Montreal, he will play his 40th straight game -- he has appeared in every contest since being recalled from Portland on Nov. 1.

The rookie has gradually earned the trust of Coach Bruce Cassidy, becoming a regular in the lineup and on the penalty kill. He has played as many as 17 minutes on some nights and took advantage of a month-long stint on the second line playing out of position on the wing. That spell skating with stars Peter Bondra and Robert Lang lifted Sutherby's confidence and cemented his belief that he could play well at this level.

"For the most part, I'm pretty happy," Sutherby said. "I think I have been solid out there. I go out, do what I can every night and try to keep it simple. I'm not trying to force a lot out there and keep the puck out of my net, and if I can chip in offensively that's a bonus. But for right now I'm pretty happy to go out there and bang and crash and try to play my role."

Sutherby has two goals and eight points in 39 games this season, with a sterling plus-9 rating, best among Washington's forwards. Last week he was voted to play in the NHL's Young Stars game, which will take place next month the night before the All-Star Game.

His worth will never be assessed through a mere statistical analysis, however.

Sutherby is mature beyond his years, has a great work ethic, understands the game, has sound instincts and carries himself like a veteran. He has all the attributes of a team captain in waiting, and a fixture in the organization.

"He's a coach's dream, really," McPhee said. "You can count on this player, you can rely on him and he continues to improve. At his age to be able to step up on a top line like he did and allow the line to remain effective was a big test, and he certainly passed it."

Capitals Notes: The Capitals plan to activate forward Dainius Zubrus (concussion) from injured reserve before today's game. Zubrus missed three games after being hit in the head by Toronto's Wade Belak last Friday, and McPhee said the team would not finalize any roster moves -- Washington might demote a forward -- until today. Forward Steve Konowalchuk (groin strain) is doubtful to play today and Sunday, McPhee said. If Konowalchuk is put on the injured list retroactive to Wednesday, the Capitals would not have to return a player to the minors, but Konowalchuk would have to miss at least the next three games.

Caps' Brian Sutherby, 20, looks good in early going. GM George McPhee considers him "a bigger Mike Peca."