They are, suddenly, the graybeards on a green group.
Brendan Witt and Sergei Gonchar were junior members on their defensive pairs for the Washington Capitals last season. They return as senior defensemen who are being counted on to anchor and develop a defensive unit marked by youth and inexperience.
“It’s kind of funny,” said Gonchar, 29, who begins his 10th season in Washington. “One day you are young and there are so many guys ahead of you. Then all of a sudden, you are the oldest one. It is surprising in one way. At the same time, it gives you more responsibility. You just have to deal with it.”
With Calle Johansson retired and the club choosing not to meet the salary demands of Ken Klee, the Caps’ most significant changes will be on the blue line.
Witt, 28, has gone from being teamed with 36-year-old Johansson to playing with 19-year-old prospect Steve Eminger. Gonchar had worked with Klee, 32. Now Josef Boumedienne, a 25-year-old Swede who spent most of last season in the minors, is skating with him on one of the team’s top two defensive pairs.
Fans will get their first look at the new and younger alignment tonight when the Caps (2-1 this preseason) play Detroit in their first exhibition game at MCI Center.
“We are called the ‘old guys,’” said Witt, who starts his ninth campaign with the Caps. “When I first came up, I had to be taught little tricks by the veterans. Now I am one of the veteran guys who teaches a guy like Eminger. We have a young group back there. Sergei and I are the main veteran defensemen. … Our roles have reversed.”
Witt and Gonchar will be asked to expand their duties, likely play more minutes and tutor teammates. Eminger, whom the Caps’ drafted with the 12th overall pick in 2002, is having a stellar camp. He has held his own physically and has been impressive with his ability to win pucks.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Canadian has been trying to absorb all he can from Witt, from positioning to checking to being quick while clearing. Eminger often asks his elder defenseman for advice.
“Witter is the perfect guy to watch — the way he plays, the way he angles, the way he plays the body,” said Eminger, who began last season with the Caps before being dropped to his junior team in Ottawa. “He’s a defensive specialist. As a young defenseman coming into the league, you have to worry about defense first. [Pairing with Witt] would make my life a lot easier.”
While that duo probably will be the best purely defensive pair, the Gonchar-Boumedienne combo should be more offensive. Boumedienne had 30 points (eight goals, 22 assists) for the Caps’ American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine, last season. Meanwhile, Gonchar was collecting a career-high 67 points on 18 goals and a career-high 49 assists.
The attack-minded Russian knows switching partners and the Caps’ more defensive-oriented system — designed to keep the puck between the blue lines more and lower game scores — could limit his offense.
“Kenny was the guy that would always stay back and back me up when I was going forward,” said Gonchar, whos has 63 goals over the past three seasons. “Usually, I am setting myself up with one step ahead of their forward. Now I have to stay back and think first that I’m a defenseman. It is a change in the mindset.”
Gonchar and Witt have now graduated from their roles as younger defenders. The organization is counting on the experienced twosome coming of age as leaders and helping teammates play beyond their years.
“It’s time,” general manager George McPhee said. “They are veterans now. It’s time that they should be able to play on their own and work with a younger person.”
Notes — The Caps trimmed their roster to 32 by assigning defenseman Jakub Cutta to Portland. The team now carries 18 forwards, 10 defensemen and four goalies. … Jaromir Jagr practiced yesterday after missing Tuesday’s session with allergies. …
Olie Kolzig will not play tonight after missing the first three preseason games with a groin injury. The goalie did take the majority of work yesterday during a long workout session with special emphasis on the power play. “He’s just not ready,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, who thinks Kolzig may be ready for Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh in Portland. “He’s been hurt and doesn’t feel sharp enough to play.”
Rastislav Stana, a 23-year-old Slovakian and promising prospect Maxime Ouellet, a 22-year-old from Quebec, will share time in front of the net. Last season’s backup, Sebastian Charpentier, missed a fourth consecutive practice and will not play because of an arthritic condition. “He’s got his medicine that hasn’t kicked in properly,” Cassidy said. “He’s out indefinitely.”
Defensemen Nolan Yonkman (rib) and J.F. Fortin (back) also won’t play.