Saturday, October 9, 2004

PORTLAND, Maine — Many of the faces are familiar, belonging to players who have toiled for the Washington Capitals for a game or two here and there or parts of seasons. Many were high draft picks, so to find them practicing at a minor league facility would be somewhat unsettling were it not for the 23-day-old lockout that has shut down the NHL.

“When I was home [in Toronto] this summer, you heard something about the lockout every day, but [in Maine] it’s almost forgotten,” said Steve Eminger, a first-round draft pick in 2002 who normally would have been finishing his preseason preparations just about now. Instead, he is expected to be one of the defensive mainstays for the Portland Pirates.

“This is a unique situation,” said Caps general manager George McPhee as he sat in the stands at Cumberland County Civic Center and watched 36 prospects go through the motions of an American Hockey League training camp. About a dozen of the players on the ice figure to play major roles for the Caps in the future; another half-dozen or so who are not in camp also enter that equation.

The lockout came at a good time for the Caps, who need all the rebuilding time they can get. Last season the team was dismantled veteran by veteran, with seasoned pros being traded for draft picks or prospects with vastly smaller salaries.

“It’s deeper and more talented than probably any [Pirates] team in the past,” McPhee said. “And probably more talented than some of the other AHL clubs. The guys here, they’re starting their pro careers at the same time, so we hope they develop some chemistry that carries over down the road.”

What Portland will be fielding this season is, in effect, the Washington Capitals’ Next Generation, only it eventually will be promoting this crop en masse instead of parceling individuals out one at a time as most feeder systems do. Watching the Next Generation practice together is like watching an expansion team evolve.

“I think we’re a little better positioned than that,” McPhee protested when asked if that was what Caps fans could expect when NHL play does resume. “I don’t think you’ve ever seen an expansion team with eight first-round picks on their farm team roster at one time, and that’s how many we have on the ice right now. These guys along with a number of other players we’ve acquired or drafted give us a core in terms of depth that most teams don’t have and expansion teams never have.

“You add in the players who aren’t here (first overall 2004 draft pick Alexander Ovechkin, playing in Russia, as the primary example), sprinkle in a few veterans that we have in Washington, and we could be a very competitive and a fun team to watch in a hurry.”

Maxime Ouellet is expected to be the next Olie Kolzig in goal. It is hoped Eminger, Shaone Morrisonn and Nolan Yonkman become fixtures on the blue line. Good things are expected from forwards Jakub Klepis, Brian Sutherby, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, Jared Aulin, Boyd Gordon, Jonas Johansson and Alexander Semin, although Semin is currently suspended for not honoring his contract.

All that’s missing is the one thing that has to be spoon-fed: experience.

“We’re not born with that, and that’s what we hope to gain this year,” McPhee said. “Hopefully they’ll play a full season together and be 25 percent better when it’s all over. Development is the obvious priority, but winning is part of development so you’d like to see them have a successful year. We want them to develop not only their talent but also relationships off and on the ice so we have a group we can keep together for a long time in Washington.”

Six players already have been trimmed from the list of candidates, and three were veterans of the Portland team last season.

“The guys who lost jobs lost them to guys who beat them out, and that’s why we’re here, to see what we have,” McPhee said. “So far we like what we see, but there’s a lot of work to do, and that’s pretty evident, too.”

The NHL season was supposed to open Oct.13 but won’t. Portland opens Oct.16.

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