- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2007

Viktor Kozlov has gone from being on a veteran-laden team to spending this training camp centering a 22-year-old and a 23-year-old.

The 32-year-old Kozlov has a little extra jump in his stride, and playing with Alex Ovechkin and Tomas Fleischmann is the reason.

“When you play with the young guys on the same line there is high energy and they push you,” Kozlov said. “I have to skate faster.”

Kozlov is one of three major free agent additions for the Washington Capitals, who after three straight last-place finishes in their division expect to stop the losing this season.

While the signings of Michael Nylander, Tom Poti and Kozlov greatly improved the team’s skill level, the Caps will return to the postseason only if their cache of young players continues to improve.

“We’re trying to make up 22 points if it is the same as last year,” said coach Glenn Hanlon, whose Caps finished last season with 70 points — 22 behind the eighth-place New York Islanders. “You can’t make it up with three players.”

Kozlov and Nylander will center the top two lines, and each will be flanked by a pair of young players still tapping into their potential. Ovechkin’s goal output dipped from 52 to 46 in his sophomore season, but teaming with Kozlov and the Caps’ improved power-play means a run at the Rocket Richard Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goal-scorer, could be in his future.

Alexander Semin had a breakthrough in 2006-07 with 38 goals, and that was playing with a rotating cast of linemates. Now more comfortable and focused and with essentially two centers — Nylander and rookie Nicklas Backstrom — feeding him the puck, Semin should improve.

“I don’t know. You never know what he might do,” Ovechkin said of his Russian pal. “He doesn’t know what he can do. He maybe score 12 goals in one game.”

Backstrom, the fourth pickoverall in the 2006 draft, could be Washington’s next phenom. He has been called the best prospect from Sweden since Peter Forsberg, but for now the Caps will be happy if he settles in as a capable left wing on the team’s second line.

After a bit of a slow start, Backstrom has meshed with Nylander and Semin nicely. He may not rack up enough points to make a run at the Calder Trophy, but his defensive awareness could earn him major minutes in all situations.

“We want Nick to come in and just play his best hockey,” Hanlon said. “We’re not putting any goals or assists [as expectations]. We haven’t given him a spot on a top line. We feel he has earned it with his play.”

Backstrom and Fleischmann both have proved to be capable puck-handlers in the preseason, which has helped them click with Nylander and Kozlov. The result for the Caps’ top two lines could be even more scoring opportunities for Ovechkin and Semin.

“We’ve had a couple of games where their cycling and ability to hold on to the puck has made me sit back and say, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I could be in the middle of that cycle,’ ” Caps captain Chris Clark said. “I’d probably try to grind it into the boards at some point, but they are such a crafty group of guys. It is fun to see.”

The Caps’ cast of talented youth isn’t limited to just up front. Poti and last year’s free agent addition, Brian Pothier, are the grizzled vets in a defense corps that features a pair of 24-year-olds in Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina, a 21-year-old in Jeff Schultz and Mike Green, who turns 22 a week from tomorrow.

Green was the star of training camp, cementing his place on the opening night roster with two goals and four assists in six games. Despite Hanlon’s consistent message to the media about the Caps needing their young players to keep improving, the other young defensemen did not make the same impression on their coach.

“I like the way Green has progressed. I think Greenie has made huge strides,” Hanlon said. “I don’t think [Jurcina] has played any better in camp than he did last year, and I don’t think Schultzie has played any better than he did last year.”

For the Caps to make the leap back into playoff contention, the team also will need to improve its special teams. Washington finished in the bottom third of the league both with the extra man and defending against it.

The additions are expected to power up the special teams, while Kozlov and Nylander are expected to help rectify another major problem — the shootout. The Caps lost 11 of 12 games last season that finished in the one-on-one format.

“Lots of times 5-on-5 we weren’t all that bad last year,” Hanlon said. “When you’re at the bottom of the barrel with the penalty kill, it makes it tough. Between shootouts and special teams I think there are a lot of points to be made up.”

The Caps haven’t made the playoffs since 2003 and haven’t advanced beyond the first round since making a run to the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals. After two post-lockout seasons of rebuilding, general manager George McPhee’s $38.5 million shopping spree signaled a significant change of course.

“Our goal ultimately is to bring a championship to Washington,” Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “We can talk about making the playoffs, but at some point we have to start talking about winning the Stanley Cup. That’s the ultimate goal, and the only way you can do that is by making the playoffs.”

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