It is only a slight change in the arrangement of bodies inside at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, but Brent Johnson moving from one side of a corner to the other represents a big change for the Washington Capitals.
Gone is Olie Kolzig, who used to set up shop in Johnson’s new digs, and with him went one of the most dynamic forces in the Caps’ dressing room. While the Caps welcome back nearly the same roster as last season, the hierarchy of leadership could be significantly different.
“He’s been the unofficial captain for the past probably eight or nine years,” said Chris Clark, the team’s official captain for the past two seasons. “He just had this presence, and I always went to him when I had questions. Guys would come to me, and I would go to him - that sort of thing.”
When the Caps added Cristobal Huet at the trade deadline last season, a natural question was how would Kolzig respond and, in turn, how a young team would deal with the change. Huet replaced Kolzig as the team’s No. 1 goaltender, playing the final seven games of the regular season and all seven postseason contests.
During that time, the Caps moved forward with new on-ice leaders like Sergei Fedorov, Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin. In other similar situations, a scorned star could have become a major distraction, but multiple former teammates said not so with Kolzig.
“I think Olie did a very humble thing and parked his ego at the door. We all sort of knew what might transpire out of it, but it just shows what a class act he was,” Laich said. “There was a kind of underlying theme of we knew what was going on, but at the same time we had so much on our plate that we were focusing on.
“Olie never detracted from our focus of making the playoffs as a team. He was always there to support us. He knew Huet became the man, and he was the first one to pat him on the back. When we scored goals he was up on the bench cheering and high-fiving guys.”
Moving on without Kolzig isn’t the only big change in the Caps’ leadership structure. Clark missed 56 of the last 57 regular-season games and the playoffs with a groin injury.
He is healthy, and his rugged style of play will be boost to a Caps forward corps that lacked some of Clark’s best attributes at times last season. But is there any sort of adjustment period for Clark or for his teammates re-embracing him as their leader?
“He’s an easy guy to welcome back with open arms,” veteran defenseman Tom Poti said. “He’s our leader, and when he wasn’t on the ice last year, he was in the locker room with us between periods and after games. He was around every day, and just because he wasn’t on the ice doesn’t mean he wasn’t our leader.”
Added Clark: “It would have been one thing if we went into the second round and I had been able to play. It would have been harder working myself into that than it is working myself in with a new season.”
Another difference for the Caps will be having Fedorov for an entire season. Players and coaches alike raved about Fedorov’s impact on the dressing room after the team acquired him from Columbus at the trade deadline.
Now the 38-year-old veteran has a chance to settle in as a prominent voice and not just a rental player for the young guys to look up to.
“He’s great,” center Boyd Gordon said. “He’s a Hall of Fame player, and I think he’s one of those guys that when he speaks, everyone listens. He brings a lot to our room, and he’s a great guy to look up to and learn from.”
Added Laich: “Sergei is a calming presence, and he really helps a lot of the young guys like myself who look up to him and grew up watching him play. You just try to soak it up like a sponge every day.”