Wednesday, September 14, 2005

It has not been a great beginning with the Washington Capitals for Andrew Cassels, the major free-agent acquisition the team made this summer.

Bought out by his old team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, he signed a one-year deal with Washington and joined the informal practice sessions upon his arrival. In one of those workouts, the center was nailed in the upper lip with a stick, opening a large gash.

Three days later, and only three days before camp opened, Cassels was crossing Piney Orchard Ice Arena during a rest period when former Cap Sergei Gonchar decided to see if he could hit an empty net 100 feet away. The slap shot caught Cassels on the left side of his face between his ear and eye, opening another gash and knocking him senseless.

“I got to visit three hospitals within a week, so at least I know where they are,” he said yesterday, not so fondly recalling his welcome to Washington.

Five of the top seven Caps forwards are not practicing for various reasons, with Cassels out for at least another week after surgery to repair the bone structure in his face.

“It’s coming along,” he said, smiling. “It’s just one of those things that happens. You can only hope this is the only injury you have all year.”

Cassels, drafted in the first round by Montreal in 1987, has played for 15 seasons in the NHL and is favorably compared to Adam Oates when it comes to passing and setting up linemates. Among his accomplishments with Columbus was helping develop wing Rick Nash — the first pick in the 2002 draft — into a star who shared a goal-scoring championship during the 2003-04 season.

And with 2004 first overall pick Alexander Ovechkin on hand as a rookie and other young players in key roles, Cassels, 36, was brought in to provide the Caps with a veteran.

“Andrew has had some pretty productive years, and he kind of fit into the mold of what we were trying to find, a dishing center,” coach Glen Hanlon said.

Said Brian MacLellan, director of player personnel: “We liked the job he did in Columbus with Nash. He’s a puck distributor, and the guys who play with him get a lot of shots. Ovechkin’s a shooter, Alexander Semin’s a shooter, so we’re looking for him to play with one of those two, somebody to get them the puck. He has good experience and he plays well in his own end.”

Cassels has played nearly 1,000 NHL games with 720 points, 520 of them assists — the offensive category of which centers are proudest.

Of Ovechkin, who turns 20 on Saturday, Cassels said, “I don’t see him having any problem fitting into this league immediately. He has the right attitude. He’s come here to work, and that shows. He has a great shot, quick release, and he’s very strong with the puck. Hopefully, he’ll be a superstar very quickly.”

Note — In addition to Cassels, other top forwards who are missing include Dainius Zubrus (arthroscopic knee surgery), Brian Willsie (excused absence), Semin and Petr Sykora, the latter two stranded in Europe.

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