- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

The number of defensemen in Washington Capitals training camp has been cut in half and there are still too many who have hundreds of games of NHL experience. And there are prospects who want a chance.

It sounds like a problem but it is one that any NHL team would love to have at a time when, across the league, defensive depth is lacking.

Players, of course, will disagree because too many at one position means some of them might be playing elsewhere, and even those who stick around might not be getting the ice time they think they need or deserve, if they get any at all.

"We don't view it as a problem," coach Ron Wilson said. "Any successful team in the NHL has eight, nine or 10 defensemen who can play regularly, whether they're playing in the NHL or elsewhere in the organization. That's the only way to be successful have depth on defense. With the increasing physicality of the sport, inevitability there's going to be injuries and you have to have that depth."

No decision has been made on how many will be kept for the regular season, seven or eight, which is how many experienced players remain. Jakub Cutta and Nolan Yonkman, both 20, can go to the minors but Nathan Paetsch, 18, must go back to juniors if he doesn't stay in Washington.

All three pairs who finished the season with the Caps return: Brendan Witt and Calle Johansson, Sylvain Cote and Rob Zettler, Joe Reekie and Sergei Gonchar. The other veterans are Ken Klee and Frankisek Kucera, who came in the Jaromir Jagr trade.

Three of the defenders the Caps will dress tonight in an exhibition game against Philadelphia at MCI Center are prospects, including Paetsch, the defenseman from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, whom the club selected with its first pick in the June draft. Paetsch will be paired with veteran Witt, who comes from the same tiny Canadian prairie town.

The other prospects are Cutta, selected in 2000, and Yonkman, the team's fourth pick in the second round in 1999. They are expected to play together.

Those three have stood out so far among the recent draftees, Paetsch even surviving the first round of cuts which saw most other players with junior hockey eligibility remaining returned to their respective teams. Paetsch has shown a good touch with the puck and has the ability to get it out of the zone without causing damage.

But for any one of the three to break through an experienced group will require luck and good timing besides better than average play.

"When you see world class defensemen take four to five years to develop into great hockey players, you understand why you just can't throw the young guys to the wolves," Wilson said. "Defense is a very tough position to play but if the young guys are ready to play and there's always a few ready before the others they'll play. It's a positive problem we're happy with."

General manager George McPhee likes what he sees in some of the younger players but doesn't want to rush them, believing careers can be ruined if prospects are pushed into the fray before they're properly developed.

"They're playing well," he said of Cutta and Yonkman. "They look like they have a chance to play in the league. It could be now, it could be a year from now, it could be two years. I just don't know."

Nor does McPhee anticipate any problems with the waiver draft, which comes at the end of this month. Teams are allowed to protect 18 skaters and two goalies who have played in the league a certain length of time.

"I don't see any problems there," he said. "There are certain contracts [other] teams won't want to take on. We'll be OK."

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