Just after 11 a.m. Wednesday, with last night’s mixed-bag performance still fresh in his mind, Madison Bowey entered the Capitals’ near-empty practice facility and skated onto unscratched ice.
The 22-year-old rookie was the first player on, some 30 minutes before practice, and glided from end to end while firing pucks at the net. This wasn’t because he committed a costly third-period turnover in an overtime road win on Tuesday. The defenseman started early, he insisted, because it is simply what he’s supposed to do.
“I’m one of the young guys, I need to be getting that extra work in,” Bowey said after Wednesday’s practice. “Whenever there is an opportunity for me to better my game, even if it’s doing something small, I need to take that chance.”
Bowey can break his first NHL season into a series of chances. The whole year is a chance to prove that, after being selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, he should figure into the Capitals’ plans. Each passing day offers a chance to stick on the roster, as he is one of two Capitals who can be sent down to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate without having to clear waivers. And each of his 33 appearances has been a chance to banish that possibility of a demotion and find some stability in a year that has included new teammates and a new apartment in a new city and new challenges against players he was not so long ago watching from afar.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said Wednesday he has not once considered sending Bowey down to play with the Hershey Bears. Either way, the development of Bowey and Christian Djoos, the team’s other contributing rookie defenseman, could influence the organization’s moves ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. The better Bowey and Djoos play, the less inclined general manager Brian MacLellan could be to seek a veteran defenseman for the team’s playoff push.
The Capitals are in first place in the Metropolitan Division at the schedule’s 41-game midpoint. Last season, with a much different roster makeup, the Capitals were front-running and made a deadline deal for Kevin Shattenkirk, then the best defenseman on the market.
Trotz now wants Bowey, who has been regularly paired with Brooks Orpik, to feel both comfortable and not comfortable at all.
“Those guys need to recognize that you need to bring it every game as a young guy,” Trotz said, also nodding to forwards Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana. “When you feel like you are here, and you’ve made it and all that, that just means that you’ve already turned around and you’re taking one step out of the door instead of in the door. So we just want to make sure that they are facing the right way and keep taking steps forward.”
In Bowey’s NHL debut, against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Capitals’ fifth game of the season, Flyers forward Jakub Voracek provided a welcome-to-the league moment. Just above the right circle, Voracek darted inside, Bowey lost his stick while lunging and spinning, then Voracek cut back outside as an off-balance Bowey grabbed at him with two empty gloves. Voracek set up a goal moments later.
“It’s all uphill from here now,” Bowey said after the game.
And it mostly has been. Bowey has a foothold in the lineup — outside of a few healthy scratches Trotz said were for “tightening” — and has tallied eight assists while averaging 13:40 of ice time. In December, a letter in Bowey’s locker stall told him to go ahead and get an apartment after living in a hotel since the season’s start in mid-October. That was the organization’s way of telling him they expect him to be around for the full year. It was especially important for Bowey since, unlike Vrana and Djoos, he did not make the NHL roster out of training camp and was called up after veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen was injured four games into the season.
“It’s a really big jump, something people probably underestimate a little bit,” Orpik said of going from the AHL to the NHL for the first time. “I think [Bowey] knows, as a young guy in the league and in something that we’ve all gone through, that it’s definitely a bit of a learning curve. You’re going to make mistakes and it’s the way you respond to mistakes.”
On Tuesday, Bowey made one of those mistakes in a tie game in Raleigh, N.C. Looking to clear the puck from deep in the Capitals’ zone, Bowey whiffed once before he was pressured by Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho. Bowey then stumbled to the ice while Aho started toward the goal, and a fluky play ended with the buck bouncing off Orpik and into the net. Orpik said Wednesday the sequence was only possible because the Capitals messed up their forecheck, leaving Bowey alone in a tough spot. The Capitals also ended up winning, 5-4, on an overtime goal by Alex Ovechkin.
Orpik said he made a point of letting Bowey know the play wasn’t his fault. He and the Capitals’ other veterans know how easy it is to dwell on every small miscue at the start of a career.
“I don’t think you feel every up and down like day to day, or week to week,” Bowey said. “But it’s definitely an adjustment, just all-around. There’s no doubt about that, and I’m just taking it all as it comes.”
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