Michael Nylander’s streak of playing 310 consecutive games ended during practice yesterday with a broken right ankle that will sideline the Washington Capitals’ first-line center four-to-six weeks.
The 6-foot-1, 189-pounder was tussling for the puck with rookie defenseman Nolan Yonkman — who has five inches and 47 pounds on the veteran — when his skates apparently caught and he went flying hard into the boards before crumpling to the ice in pain.
“Nolan is fighting to make this team, and Michael’s a competitive guy,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Things happen.”
After receiving medical attention, Nylander was helped from the ice by linemate Mike Grier. Sitting on a nearby table, the normally laid-back Nylander hurled a glove and his right leg pad away in anger. He knew before any X-rays were taken that he would be sidelined for the first time since April 1999.
“It definitely hurts,” general manager George McPhee said of losing the Stockholm native, who turns 31 today and who had 56 points in 71 games for the Caps after being acquired from Chicago with two draft picks Nov.1 for Chris Simon and Andrei Nikolishin. “Michael is a gifted offensive player, and he kills penalties for us. Fortunately, center is one position where we’re deep.”
The Caps could move second-line left wing Dainius Zubrus or fourth-liners Boyd Gordon, Brian Sutherby or Kip Miller into Nylander’s spot alongside Grier and five-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, who practiced yesterday after sitting out the third period of Thursday’s 4-4 exhibition tie with Philadelphia with a slightly pulled groin.
The Caps would hate to break up the promising Zubrus-Robert Lang tandem, but they are unsure whether Gordon, 19, or Sutherby, 21, is ready for a major role. The 34-year-old Miller, a Jagr favorite, is the natural choice, but he recently was demoted from the top line in favor of Grier.
“As a coach, you have to think, what do we do now?” Cassidy said before the diagnosis. “Zubrus is out of position already, so we’ll look at that and other things.”
Otherwise, the roster for Thursday’s season opener against the New York Islanders is about set. Olie Kolzig and Sebastian Charpentier will be the goalies, with Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, Jason Doig and Joel Kwiatkowski likely joined on the blue line by 19-year-old Steve Eminger, late-season addition Josef Boumedienne and journeyman John Gruden.
The top three lines figure to be: Grier, Nylander and Jagr; Zubrus, Lang and 19-year-old Russian rookie Alexander Semin; and Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern and Peter Bondra. Sutherby was slated to center the fourth line with Gordon on the right and Miller, Matt Pettinger or enforcer Stephen Peat on the left.
With Nylander out and barring McPhee finding a defenseman he likes and can afford in today’s NHL waiver draft, the Caps can get to Monday’s roster maximum of 23 by sending enforcer Alex Henry and defensemen Yonkman and J.F. Fortin to Portland of the American Hockey League.
Henry suffered a concussion against the Flyers and isn’t expected to be available for this weekend’s games with Carolina. Yonkman and Fortin returned against the Flyers after missing the first five preseason games with injuries. Cassidy said they played decently but tired noticeably in the third period. Defenseman Rick Berry, who might have been the odd man out if Nylander were healthy, now might grab the final roster spot.
Fourth-line candidates Trent Whitfield and Darcy Verot were sent to Portland yesterday along with No.3 goalie Maxime Ouellet. Whitfield played 14 games with the Caps last year and the rest with Portland. Verot and Ouellet spent all of 2002-2003 in the AHL. Gruden, 33, is the only Cap available in the waiver draft.
Gordon, Miller and Pettinger, who were scratched against the Flyers, will play in tonight’s home preseason finale against the Hurricanes in a veteran-filled lineup. The younger players, including Charpentier (who hasn’t been in a game since Sept.20), are expected to play in tomorrow’s preseason finale in Raleigh, N.C.