Stephen Werner is a veteran of five Washington Capitals' development camps at Piney Orchard, where the Chevy Chase native has spent one week each July skating alongside the organization's brightest prospects.
It's now his turn to become one of them.
Werner, 19, hopes a strong showing in this week's camp, coupled with two productive seasons at the University of Massachusetts and his sparkling performance in the world junior championship tournament last winter, will force the club to include him in its future plans.
"I definitely think that every camp since the first I went to is a little more important than the one before it," said Werner, a former All-Met from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High who was chosen by Washington in the third round of the 2003 entry draft. "This year I certainly want to put myself in a position where they see me as a future Capital."
Like veteran center Jeff Halpern, another Montgomery County-raised player, Werner is a two-way forward who is a threat to score and equally adept in the defensive zone.
But what sets Werner apart is his powerful skating stride. That speed and agility has distinguished the 6-foot-1, 197-pound right-handed shooting right wing in a camp that includes 10 first-round picks and five second-rounders.
"We're looking for improvement, and Stephen has shown us that," Coach Glen Hanlon said. "I've always looked at him as an NHL prospect. As long as he does all the things that are necessary to improve, we don't see any reason why he won't be in the NHL someday."
Werner said his plan is to graduate from U-Mass., where he'll be a junior this fall. Whether he graduates with his class, however, depends on the Capitals' plans for him. Washington can sign Werner anytime in the next three years.
"I don't have any set plans," Werner said. "I'm going to play it by ear. I'm going to finish college at some point. It doesn't matter if I do it in four years, just as long as I do it. When the Caps think I'm ready to go, I'll be ready to go."
The man who will make that decision, General Manager George McPhee, said he's been impressed by Werner's improvement, but still believes he would benefit from another year or two at U-Mass.
"He probably needs more time in college," McPhee said. "But we're going to keep an eye on him, and then we'll see."
When Werner was drafted, some thought that he was a courtesy pick, chosen primarily because of his ties to the area, and not much else. He's done plenty since then to dispel that notion.
Werner helped lead Team USA to a gold medal finish at the world junior championship tournament in Finland last winter. He scored five goals -- the second highest total in the tournament and tied for the most on his team -- while skating on the team's top line, which also included Zach Parise, the son of former NHL standout J.P. Parise, and Brady Murray, whose father, Andy Murray, is head coach of the Los Angeles Kings. Team USA defeated Canada, 4-3, in the gold medal game.
"Seeing the kids sing the national anthem," said Tony Werner, Stephen's father, who traveled to Finland with Werner's mom, Marion, for the tournament, "it just gave you chills."
The Capitals honored Werner for his achievement at MCI Center between periods last January.
"That gave me a lot confidence," Werner said. "Having success and playing with and against such great competition was good for me." As for the doubters, he added: "I hope I've proven those people wrong. But the ultimate test will be if I can make the big club. I'm still looking to prove myself."
Werner returned to U-Mass. after the World Juniors to complete his sophomore season. He helped direct the Minutemen to the Hockey East championship game, where they were defeated by national powerhouse Maine, 2-1, in triple overtime. Werner finished with seven goals and 24 points in 33 games.
Werner has been doing his part off the ice, too. He ranked first among the nearly 30 prospects in overall fitness, as determined by a litany of tests on and off the ice. It's a testament to his rigorous work routine and disciplined diet, two areas of training the Capitals hope the prospects take away from this camp.
"What you notice first about him is how well he moves," Halpern said of Werner. "He skates a lot like [St. Louis Blues left wing] Keith Tkachuk, low to the ice. And he's got great hands. He's got a lot of upside."
Werner and the other prospects will break camp today. It may be awhile before any of the Capitals participate in another team-sanctioned, on-ice practice given the game's uncertain future.
The collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players' union expires on Sept. 15. Wednesday's four-hour long negotiating session between the sides failed to yield any progress toward a new deal, making the likelihood of a protracted owner's lockout all but certain.