- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

HERSHEY, Pa. — Enough of a separation in levels of talent has taken place in training camp that the Washington Capitals’ coaching staff is starting to fill in lines — and there are a few surprises.

The surprises are more in the placement of some players rather than the selection of which will make the team. For instance, new team captain Jeff Halpern will be basically a right wing this season instead of a center, but don’t be surprised to see him centering in some situations.

The Caps yesterday acquired New Jersey left wing Jeff Friesen for a conditional 2006 draft pick. The deal had been rumored for weeks with the Devils trying to unload players to get under the salary cap. Friesen makes $2.28 million, a salary that will put him second among the Caps in base pay.

Players practiced at their new positions but without two players the team hoped would provide offense this season, Russian left wing Alexander Semin and Czech right wing-center Petr Sykora. It would appear their window of opportunity is closing, but they are said to be talented enough to make the team if they ever show up.

The acquisition of Friesen makes up partially for the probable loss of Semin. Friesen has had 20-goal seasons and was the offensive spark for New Jersey with 10 playoff goals when the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2003. He is a 10-year NHL veteran just seven points shy of 500 for his career.

Semin reportedly has no burning desire to return to North America because he is making more money playing for Lada Togliatti in the Super League. Semin is under contract to the Caps and continues to be suspended, a suspension the Russians ignore.

Sykora also is under contract and has been unable to play for his Czech team because that country has signed the IIHF document binding him to the Caps. There are rumors that his former team is demanding a large payoff to allow Sykora to leave but there appears to be nothing legally holding him. Caps general manager George McPhee has refused comment.

Meanwhile, coach Glen Hanlon appears to be building his lines around the theory that all parts are interchangeable. Hence Halpern, a center for years, goes back to right wing but is available to play in the middle.

The same holds true for Miroslav Zalesak, who has been playing on the right side for most of training camp. He now becomes a left wing, where he has played for the past few seasons, but can switch back in an instant.

At the moment, the left wings are Friesen, Alexander Ovechkin, Matt Pettinger, Ben Clymer and Zalesak; the centers Andrew Cassels, Dainius Zubrus, Boyd Gordon and Brian Sutherby; the right wings Halpern, Brian Willsie, Matt Bradley and Stephen Peat.

That alignment likely drops prospects such as Chris Bourque, Eric Fehr and Jakub Klepis to Hershey of the American Hockey League.

“We’re not overly concerned about left and right because Pettinger plays both left and right, Willsie plays left and right, same with Zalesak,” Hanlon said. “It’s a luxury that allows you to do different things. The more versatility you have, the easier it is.”

Said Halpern: “I’ve played both [right wing and center] in the past. I don’t know what the final makeup is. I think guys will be shifted back and forth all year. We’re interchangeable — we’ll try to fit whatever role we’re put in. I feel more comfortable at center, but at the same time when you’re playing [wing] with a guy like Zubrus, it makes it a lot easier.”

Defense is another story. Eleven players are vying for eight spots, with very few decisions made. Rookies Jeff Schultz and Mike Green are playing unexpectedly well and throwing the decision-making process into chaos.

“We still have a lot of tough decisions to make,” Hanlon said. “The play of Green and Schultz, they’re way ahead of schedule and that’s made it difficult for us to come up with a final eight. When the kids got here, the first thing we said was if they played well, we’d take a look at them. They both have a chance. We wanted to create competition and we were successful.”


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