The summer for the Washington Capitals seemed filled with uncertainty. The Caps had just finished a disappointing regular season that saw them struggle for long stretches because of their inability to score, even though their hot-shot winger still finished in the top 10 in goals. This meant they had to chase down a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season, a contrast to previous years when it had been a certainty well in advance. The team's struggles cost their coach his job, a coach who had made the playoffs every season since coming in as a mid-season replacement a few years before. A new coach was hired over the summer, someone the general manager was familiar with, someone who was cerebral and would install a new two-way system, but who had never won a Stanley Cup. To that end, Tim Hunter was brought on as an assistant to lend the experience of having won a Stanley Cup to the coaching staff.
The team's #1 center for the past several seasons who had shown so much chemistry with the All-Star scoring winger was coming off a disappointing season marred by injuries. That scoring winger, a player who led the league in goals just a few seasons before, saw his per-game goal average drop by about 0.2 goals per game from his league-leading season while trying different linemates. His good friend and, some said, more talented fellow scoring winger had left the team recently, though his enigmatic nature and declining production left many to wonder if the team wasn't better off without him, even as he posted good scoring totals with his new team. Fortunately, things were looking up, as the team was bringing in a new center with a history of production.
At first glance, this center wasn't much to look at. Small and slight in nature, he wasn't the most gifted of skaters, either. A career 14% shooter, he didn't shoot enough and never seemed to get much beyond 20 goals in a season and one third of his production came from the powerplay. But he could pass with the best of them. Over the past 8 seasons, he was in the first breath of playmaking centers in the NHL. With a cloudy contract situation, this new Capital center was certainly going to be due a hefty raise and was no safe bet to stick around. Already a few years into his 30s, he had been acquired for a young center many Capitals pundits were predicting to be a big scorer in years to come if given a real chance at ice time and a scoring line role. Early in the new season, that young center was right at the top of his new team's scoring picture, too.
Photo: Washington Post