ESTERO, Fla. — There was a strange backdrop to the first whiff of hockey for the Washington Capitals this fall, between the palm trees swaying outside Germain Arena and the steaming heat, thick enough to fog their helmet visors on the trek to the locker room. There were zero shots on goal for the first nine minutes of the 2015 Lightning Prospect Tournament, no stoppage whistles for the first 10 minutes and a scoreboard that read, after defenseman Connor Hobbs’ second-period strike, 199-0.
Last September, after a five-day rookie camp at their Arlington facility, the Capitals dispatched their prospects to Voorhees, N.J., for one game against their counterparts from the Philadelphia Flyers. The result was a “scrambling” affair, as Hershey Bears Coach Troy Mann described it, not only for him and his staff, but for those players hoping to impress on the ice too. Few stood out to team officials, who returned home searching for a better format.
“Because it was really sloppy,” Washington Coach Barry Trotz said. “It was hard to gauge. You need the players to play in a couple games. As this tournament goes on, the next game will be less sloppy and the game after that will be less sloppy, and that’s what you want to see, is players adjusting.”
Saturday afternoon’s opener, a 2-1 shootout victory for Florida, wasn’t much crisper after just 90 minutes of practice time, but at least two more games afforded the luxury of a tune-up. The Capitals’ last such appearance in a rookie tournament came before the 2003-04 season, their second and final year at the Centre Ice Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., and Mann said discussions about joining another one had cropped up during development camp over recent summers. So when the Boston Bruins left the pre-training camp event for something closer to home, a spot opened for Washington beside Florida, Tampa Bay and Nashville.
“Last year, we had such a great week of practice, and you play one game, and you don’t win the game and maybe the game doesn’t go as well as you’d expect based on the week of practice,” Mann said. “At least the tournament setting gives you a little more of an indication, because you are playing three games.”
The assembled roster brought together 21 skaters and two goaltenders, some high-round draft picks and undrafted free agents with more to prove. Mann and his assistants steered the on-ice operation, just as they did in Voorhees, while Trotz and his staff, and a smattering of front-office officials, watched from suite level. All flew to southwest Florida with varying aims.
On the bench, Mann wanted a closer look at several Hershey-bound prospects, upwards of a dozen who might see time in the American Hockey League, and relished the chance for some coaching practice before training camp. Up in the Capitals’ box, Trotz wondered if some might earn NHL exhibition appearances later this month, and how his organizational depth stacked up against other clubs.
On the ice, there was undrafted free agent Miles Koules hunting for an entry-level contract, and forward Caleb Herbert hoping for an extension once his deal expires next summer. Goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who finished with 22 saves, was bracing for his first year in North America, most likely in a starting role for the South Carolina Stingrays of the East Coast Hockey League. Forward Nathan Walker returned to the same rink where he tore his ACL in February, his first game since the season-ending injury.
“Considering this is where it happened, I guess I can get the demons out early,” Walker said.
With two more games guaranteed — against Tampa Bay on Sunday evening and Nashville on Tuesday — Mann told his players that early mistakes were expected. Some had just learned the system during Friday’s practice, and all were returning for their first action since last season. Instead, Mann told them, he was looking for composure and growth.
“Now it’s just a matter of more evaluation on an individual personnel perspective than it is the overall team game,” Mann said. “Ultimately we want to win the tournament, get more points than the other teams, but we’re not going to be crying here come Tuesday if we don’t win.”