Capitals add grit with recent roster moves

Steve Oleksy latest tough guy to come aboard in squad makeover

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When the Washington Capitals signed Steve Oleksy and called him up from the Hershey Bears, coach Adam Oates told the defenseman that, as much as he fought in the minor leagues, the team didn’t get him just to be an enforcer.

“I know that’s part of his game,” Oates said. “That’s not why he’s here. That’s not. We need him to play.”

The Caps also need defenseman John Erskine and forwards Matt Hendricks and Aaron Volpatti to play, but in moves made over the past week, they’ve gotten much tougher. They claimed Volpatti off waivers and then signed Oleksy, adding two fighters and altering the dynamic of the roster.

“I think we’ve got a tough team,” Erskine said. “You look at Boston a couple years ago when they won the Cup, or even now they’re successful, and they’ve got a few tough guys on their team. They play very gritty. I think you can’t get enough of gritty, tough-style players.”

Oates and general manager George McPhee obviously agree, even as the coach cited Oleksy being a right-handed shot as the reason he’s here. Balance on defense is something Oates strongly believes in.

But it also doesn’t hurt to have some policemen skating around with skilled players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

“Any team you need a combination of both. You can’t just play with skill,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “You need role players; you need guys to do different things. You can’t just win with one-dimensional teams, that’s for sure. Adding guys like that, character guys like that, it sure helps in the long run.”

In the long run, neither Volpatti (four points in his first 55 NHL games) nor Oleksy, who was to make his NHL debut Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins, will produce a whole lot. Oleksy did manage to put up two goals and 12 assists in the American Hockey League this season, but his game is best in the defensive end.

“What goalies really want in a D-man, that’s basically what Oleksy is,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “He’s a little more of a defensive D-man, obviously he plays very physical especially in front of the net, he’s a hard guy to play against. … You know he’s going to be safe in your D-zone, he’s going to do the smart plays.”

And, like Erskine, Hendricks and Volpatti, he’s not afraid to fight.

“He does that to stick up for teammates and bring an amount of emotion to a game if it’s needed,” Holtby said. “He’s not a fighter, he’s more of a Hendy-type guy who does it to help the team.”

Volpatti and Oleksy combine to give the Caps “lots of energy” and will “pay attention to the details that count,” said agent Peter Cooney, who represents both. And as much as both players are gritty and tough, Oates is still trying to feel out what team toughness really is.

The Bruins are a good model for what he wants.

“They’re team tough based on the fact that they play,” Oates said. “They stick their nose in and they’re willing to take bumps. And that’s what it is to me. … Just being able to go down the walls, take the bumps, take the punishment. They got some big defensemen, big forwards. That’s the way they play. You got to be able to handle it.”

Oates said he wants his team to be “relentless,” pinning opponents in their defensive zone and controlling the tempo of the game. That’s not the same thing as having agitators and enforcers, but it can play a role in keeping opposing tough guys honest.

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