When Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee began making roster changes this past summer, he didn’t target skaters who could score goals or stop shots.
He didn’t go after a flashy forward to complement Alex Ovechkin’s prodigious skill set, nor did he look to pick up young talent in the draft.
McPhee wanted only one thing: experienced players who knew how to win in that baleful month of April, when the Caps always seem to melt down.
While they might lack the kind of upside that would turn heads on a stat sheet, each player brings a sense of grit and determination that could make the Caps tougher when the playoffs come around.
“They’re character guys,” Caps forward Matt Hendricks said. “Anytime you look at Brouwer with a Stanley Cup, he brings a lot of skill and grit to our lineup but also has kind of a veteran presence. He’s been there, he’s been to the Holy Grail, he’s got it. Joel Ward did a great job in the playoffs, kind of an older gentleman as well, and they can just help spark our room.”
In trading their first round draft pick (26th overall) to Chicago for Brouwer, the Caps made clear their desire to build their 2011-12 team around proven winners rather than promising youth.
The 26-year-old right wing won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010, chipping in four goals and four assists in the playoffs. Brouwer racked up 17 goals and 19 assists last season, but it is not his goal-scoring attributes that define him.
His relentless tenacity and 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame give the Caps a formidable presence on the offensive end, an area some critics deemed too soft during last season’s playoff push. After ranking fifth in the NHL with 262 hits last season, Brouwer should add a bruising option to a group looking to toughen up on its forecheck.
That blend of toughness and Stanley Cup experience could serve as a guiding light for a club that has consistently come up short during the postseason. It also could also light a fire under players such as left wing Alexander Semin, who was criticized by ex-teammates for not caring.
“I’ve got some experience in the league and in the playoffs, and that’s part of the reason they brought me in,” Brouwer said. “I’m not trying to be the captain or assistant captain or anything. We already have guys for that. Any team will tell you that everyone needs to be a leader in their own way. I like to lead by my example. Hard work’s contagious, and hopefully guys will follow after that.”
Brouwer’s arrival means 39-year-old Mike Knuble’s starting spot at right wing is no longer a given, even though he’s expected to begin the season there. Washington coach Bruce Boudreau has expressed interest in an Ovechkin-Brouwer combination up top, saying Brouwer’s rugged style and ability to clean up rebounds around the goal could complement Ovechkin’s finesse approach nicely.
With just 10 goals and 19 assists during the 2010-11 regular season, it might seem odd that 20 teams clamored for his services during the offseason.
It was his impressive production during the postseason, however, that made him such an attractive acquisition, particularly to the Caps.
The 30-year-old right wing nearly matched his 80-game regular season numbers in the playoffs, leading the Predators with seven goals and six assists during that 12-game stretch. His dynamic performance helped Nashville capture its first playoff series victory.
“The expectations are pretty high,” Ward said. “There’s definitely a sense of urgency, but you can’t put too much pressure on yourself. You definitely can’t execute when you do that. You just have to relax and just trust in one another and try to bond well as a team.”
His checking ability helps fill the voids left by Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon, who combined for just eight goals and 12 assists last season.
Ward’s versatility and willingness to do whatever is asked of him means he could fit into just about any of the team’s four lines. He knows his job isn’t to lead the squad in goal scoring, meaning he can focus on helping the Caps win in other ways.
“I think I know my role. It’s no secret I’m not going to go out there and score 50 goals,” Ward said. “For myself, it’s just to keep pucks out and make things happen for my linemen, and the main thing is just winning hockey games. If we can do that and jell and grow as a team, I think things will work out.”