- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

They are simple, little-noticed events — Michael Nylander circling the offensive zone, Viktor Kozlov skating along the wall and into the slot while a helpless defender tries to reach around his massive frame, Tom Poti calmly moving away from a scrum and out of his team’s defensive zone.

Each involves a player controlling the puck in a situation where many players cannot.

While the Washington Capitals‘ three marquee free-agent additions will be counted on in many areas this season, none may be more important than their puck possession skills.

“They handle the puck well, they are comfortable with the puck and they see the ice well and can distribute it,” Caps general manager George McPhee said.

The premise is simple: The team that controls the puck, controls the game. It spends more time on offense and less time on defense. The plan to be a puck possession team also sounds simple: more skating with the puck and smart passes, less chipping the puck out of trouble and dumping it into the offensive zone.

Finding and developing players to execute that plan can be difficult. For the past two seasons since the lockout, the Caps have lacked the quantity of skilled players necessary to be such a team.

“The one thing I always saw with these guys was they worked hard. They worked their butts off, but at the same time it seemed like they were always chasing the puck,” said Poti, who played for the New York Islanders last season. “It seemed like they were content to dump it in and then chase and try to create turnovers.”

Added McPhee: “For the last year or two we were a team that chased pucks and had good tempo and pressured pucks all over the place, but didn’t have it as much as we wanted. We hope now with the development of some of the defensemen and the type of people we have, we’ll be chasing less and possessing more.”

Possessing the puck more can help the Caps in areas other than their ability to score more five-on-five goals, in which they ranked 18th in the league last season. Teams that control the puck draw more hooking, holding and interference penalties, and the Caps expect to improve their production with the extra man, which ranked 24th in the league at 16.6 percent.

They also take fewer penalties and therefore spend less time killing them. The Caps tied for 12th in the NHL in times shorthanded at 414. Of the 14 teams that were shorthanded at least 414 times, 10 did not make the playoffs — and two that did (Vancouver and Calgary) featured finalists for the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the league’s top goalie.

“If you think about it, Michael Nylander is probably our best defensive signing because of the way he handles the puck in the offensive zone,” goalie Olie Kolzig said. “The more time he has it on his stick down there, the less time we have to spend in our end.”

When it comes to personnel, it starts with the defense. The Caps will expect their defensemen to “make a play” — either find a teammate with a pass or skate the puck out of trouble whenever possible — instead of instantly thinking about clearing it out of danger but back into the other team’s control.

The additions of Poti and Josef Boumedienne, considered “puck-moving defensemen,” and the maturation of Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina and Mike Green could provide the Caps with a more mobile, possession-oriented blue line corps.

At the other end, the Caps will try to carry the puck into the offensive end more to set up instead of dumping it and trying to force a turnover. This is also where Nylander’s and Kozlov’s ability to protect it for long periods comes into play.

“There were occasions last year when we had wingers that could score but we just couldn’t get them the puck. We’d try to make give-and-go plays and they’d give it but they’d not get it back,” McPhee said.

Added Hanlon: “Don’t misconstrue an incomplete pass with dumping and chasing. We’ve never told our players to dump the puck or if you have an offensive attack, we’re not telling them to dump it. … We’ve created some other options that we didn’t have here in the past.”

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