The Washington Capitals continue to lead the way in the Southeast Division despite key injuries up and down their lineup. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
Of all the statistics out there, games played is the most important – just ask Simon Gagne and Patrice Bergeron how they felt about last season.
But into every franchise’s life a little rain must fall and man-games will inevitably be lost to injuries, suspensions and personal emergencies. How a team responds to absence is very important, but even more crucial to success is how prepared a team is for those losses.
Case in point: the Washington Capitals, current penthouse residents of the Southeast Division. The same Capitals, mind you, presently without the services of Mike Green, Sergei Fedorov, Chris Clark, Jeff Schultz and John Erskine, among others. All told, that’s the NHL’s leading goal-scorer among defensemen last year, a Hall of Famer, the captain and two other top-six blueliners.
Washington’s last result? A resume-building win over Boston, the best team in the East.
Now, sure, having Alex Ovechkin in the lineup helps. But Alexander Semin has already missed 10 games and Jose Theodore has once again lost a starting job in net, this time to Brent Johnson. No, the Capitals are doing it by committee and they’re doing it thanks to an American League team in Hershey that nurtured and prepared the Caps’ fill-ins so well this year.
Graham Mink, Keith Aucoin, Chris Bourque and Alexandre Giroux are all recent additions to the Washington roster and former Hershey Bears. So are Green, Dave Steckel, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr and Brooks Laich. All those players, with the exception of Aucoin and Giroux, won the AHL championship Calder Cup in 2006. Even Caps newbie Tyler Sloan played two games for the Bears in the playoffs that year after coming over from Manitoba.
In a conversation I had with Washington coach Bruce Boudreau - who was behind the Hershey bench when they won the Calder Cup - this summer, the affable bench boss told me how the Caps prefer to call up players based on what his team needs and not necessarily who the highest scorer on the Bears may be.
Every prospect will tell you those initial games in a higher league are a shock to the system – the words “bigger” and “faster” come up a lot – so it’s important to let a sniper be a sniper instead of expecting him to provide energy on the fourth line or shutdown play on the third.
Of course, with so many injuries this season, the Caps have taken pretty much everyone available, but it shows the foresight the organization has in weaving players in.
It should be no surprise that Calder Cup success has often translated into NHL success soon after. The Bears were denied back-to-back titles by the Hamilton Bulldogs, who were anchored by current Habs young guns such as Carey Price, Andrei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre, Ryan O’Byrne and the hottest hand in the NHL right now, Matt D’Agostini.
The Portland Pirates, who lost in the Calder Cup semifinals to Hershey in ’06, nonetheless helped produce Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Dustin Penner, Shane O’Brien and Kent Huskins for the Anaheim Ducks, while Buffalo’s ability to turn AHL prospects into NHL regulars is a seemingly non-stop affair.
All of this is good news for Atlanta, parent club of the reigning Calder champion Chicago Wolves. While the Thrashers are obviously not in any sort of contention for anything but the draft lottery this year, Bryan Little has already shown what kind of player the Wolves can produce, while Ondrej Pavelec has made the goaltending debate in Atlanta interesting.
In the meantime, the Thrashers can look up in the Southeast standings as proof that success can have a trickle-up effect.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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