- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

There are two ways to consider the youth and relative inexperience of the Washington Capitals.

The first is that it helps explain their 3-1 deficit to the Philadelphia Flyers in the quarterfinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The second is, no matter how the series turns out, this is just the first of what should be many postseason opportunities.

In other words, the Caps are just getting started.

“We’ve got as good a young core as any team in the NHL,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Before the trade deadline in February, the Caps were the second-youngest team in the league. That changed when the team acquired veterans Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke and Cristobal Huet, and other teams got younger. But the Caps are still the youngest of the 16 teams in the playoffs.

Washington has 14 players appearing in the postseason for the first time, which has been reflected against the Flyers. Going into today’s Game 5 at Verizon Center, the Caps face elimination. The future looms closer than it did a week ago.

But it’s a bright future. The organizational plan instituted a few years ago, i.e., tear it down and build it back up, seems to be working.

If the Caps were a commodity to be traded, “It’s a stock you’d want to hang on to,” general manager George McPhee said. “We have a real solid foundation now, and the team should be good for awhile. And I think we have more to add to it, with more players coming along.”

Nearly half of the 27 Caps players are 25 years old or younger. Alex Ovechkin, the leading Hart Trophy candidate as MVP, is 22. So is Mike Green, who led all NHL defensemen in goals. Nicklas Backstrom, No. 1 among all rookies in assists and second in points, is 20.

The list goes on. Alexander Semin, who finished second on the team in goals, is 24, as is Brooks Laich, who played in every game this season and scored 21 goals. Defensemen Jeff Schultz, Steve Eminger and Shaone Morrisonn are 22, 24 and 25, respectively.

“We’re exciting,” Laich said. “Our youth is sometimes an advantage. We have so much enthusiasm and energy. You look at our celebrations after we score or after we win. We just have so much fun playing with each other.”

And, more young players, like Karl Alzner, Andrew Gordon and Sami Lepisto, are on the way.

“I love where this organization is heading,” Laich said. “I love the players we have here, the staff, everything about this town, the city, and hockey we have here. My dad was in town and I said, ‘You know what? I think we’re exciting now, but give us a couple of years together and we’re gonna get better and better.’ ”

This was all by design. During the 2003-04 season, McPhee, team president Dick Patrick and owner Ted Leonsis launched a rebuilding effort that entailed dumping highly paid veterans like Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang, and focusing on the draft and player development.

The 2004 draft, which produced Ovechkin, Green and Schultz, proved to be especially bountiful but not without some growing pains. The Caps had losing records in the two seasons after the lockout.

But patience paid off this year. Bruce Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon as coach in November, and the team won its last seven games to complete a rise from last place to clinch the Southeast division and its first playoff appearance in five years.

Meanwhile, the Caps gave Ovechkin a 13-year, $124 million contract extension in January.

“I did a lot of research,” Leonsis said. “And for the most part, the teams that had generational success built from within. They had a group of players that came and went, but the core stayed together. That was the drive behind Alex’s 13-year deal. We want him to be here, he’s gonna be a constant, and we’ve got a lot of other young players.”

One of them, 22-year-old Eric Fehr, said, “The trend in the league is that the young guys are starting to take over a little bit. And we’ve got some skilled players who have really developed quickly.”

In Boudreau, who coached championship teams in the American Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League before getting his first NHL coaching job, the Caps apparently have a leader suitably equipped for a young team.

“We’ve got a great coach that believes in the young guys,” said 28-year-old Quintin Laing, a minor league lifer until this season. “He lets guys kind of be themselves out there. He doesn’t tie them down or make them nervous. He lets them loose a bit, and for young players, that gives them confidence and lets them make plays.”

It still took an infusion of experience at the trade deadline to get the Caps into the playoffs. Fedorov is 38, Huet is 32 and Cooke is 29. But as much as those players have helped, the Caps’ youth has rubbed off.

“I think we keep them young,” Laich said. “Sometimes if they’re not feeling overjoyed or up, or they don’t have that much energy, they see the young guys skating around and see how much fun we have playing the game. I think it brings them back. Like with Fed. We call him the 28-year-old Fedorov right now.”

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