Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rookies Johansson, Eakin, Finley Impress

By Scott Lowe
With two days of rookie camp in the book, it’s not hard to tell who is catching the eye of Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau has mentioned first-round draft picks Marcus Johansson, Cody Eakin and Joe Finley following each day’s workout.

Each player has his own interesting story and timeline. Johnasson, a Swede who has played both center and wing, has average size, but is mature with good speed and skill. He is one of the youngsters mentioned by some as a possibility to fill the open No. 2 center spot for the Caps this year. While on the surface it would seem to be a longshot for a soon-to-be 20-year-old (Oct. 6 birthday) to become the second-line center for the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners, upon further review, it might make sense to give him a shot.

Nicklas Backstrom also came to Washington from Sweden and was mentored initially by countryman Michael Nylander. Now, Backstrom could handle that role for his young compatriot. Johansson likely would be surrounded by talented, veteran players such as Alex Semin and Brooks Laich (or Tomas Fleischmann) on the second line, and with all the offensive firepower the Caps have, he wouldn’t feel a tremendous amount of pressure to score goals. The hope would be to have him spend a good portion of the season getting acclimated to the NHL game and developing and understanding of what it takes to succeed in the league as well as his linemate’s tendendices.

Washington can afford to be patient without jeopardizing its standing as an Eastern Conference favorite, and Johannson has played at a very high level internationally as a member of Swedish professional championship teams and the captain of Sweden’s World Junior Championship team in 2010.

“He’s looked pretty good so far,” Boudreau said. “Of course there’s no hitting yet, but he does look really smooth and skilled. I think he’s going to be a good player.”

Eakin is a 2009 third-round draft pick who finished last year with Hershey after his season with Swift Current of the WHL concluded. Still 19, he recently was named captain of the Broncos for the 2010-11 campaign, but certainly would be willing to give that up if he were to land an NHL job with one of the league’s elite teams. A center in an organization looking for depth at that position, Eakin was dominant in the WHL a year ago with 47 goals and 44 assists. Although not big at 5-11 and about 185 lbs., he has tremendous speed and is solid at both ends of the ice. Because he has a year of junior hockey left, either Eakin makes the Caps’ roster full time or must be returned to Swift Current. While it appears to be a longshot for him to stick at the NHL level, Eakin will get a long look from Boudreau: “He’s been impressive so far, and I’d really like to get a look at him in one or two NHL exhibition games before I decide exactly where he belongs.”

Finley is a 2005 first-round draft pick who suffered a rare arm aneurysm last year that limited him to 17 games with South Carolina of the ECHL. A big, strong defenseman at 6-8, 255 lbs., Finley appears headed for a full season at Hershey this year. There is no rush for the Caps, who already will have four former first-round draft picks in their lineup, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Finley get a couple of NHL games under his belt to benefit his and the team’s future if there are some injuries. In this day and age of salary cap constraints, it seems unlikely that Washington will be able to keep their NHL-level first-rounders together forever, so finding that next generation of blueliners is a key to the team’s long-term success.

“Last year we had Joe in camp and we tried him at forward,” Boudreau said. “I just don’t think his heart was into that, and it showed. He seems more comfortable and determined this year. Joe’s a big, strong guy and those are the types of guys you really want to work with.”

Another young player who has been impressive but will be returning to juniors this year is Russian QMJHL prospect Stanislav Galiev. Galiev, who recorded 60 points in 69 games and 19 points in 21 playoff contests for St. John last season, is a winger who general manager George McPhee has asked Boudreau to move to center during rookie camp. That move was made easier when 2008 first-round pick Anton Gustafsson, drafted as a center, asked to be shifted to wing during the summer. The Caps are desperately trying to build depth at the pivot, so this move could expedite Galiev’s path to the NHL, especially if he keeps impressing.

Eakin and Mitchell Named Captains of Junior Teams
Both Eakin and another Washington prospect, Garrett Mitchell, have been named captains of their respective WHL junior teams – Swift Current and Regina, respectively. Mitchell, a 2009 sixth-round pick, recorded 31 points in 57 games for Regina before appearing in one game for AHL Hershey last season.

“It’s great to have those types of leaders in the organization,” Boudreau said. “You can see why they are captains. They are the first ones to do the drills here, they always get the drills right the first time and the always work hard. When they go back to their junior teams there are going to be 16-year-old kids who want to be just like them. Then they come in here and do the same things. You can’t have enough leaders. For our future that is a really good thing.”

Upcoming Schedule
Rookie camp continues tomorrow (Wednesday, Sept. 15) with an 11:45 a.m. scrimmage at the Kettler Iceplex, followed by Thursday’s annual rookie game against the Flyers. That game, which starts at 3 p.m. at Kettler, has become very popular among Caps’ fans in recent years, annually drawing upwards of 1,500 fans. For those who can’t miss work or school, the usually intense battle will be streamed live on www.WashingtonCaps.com. Veteran players have been skating every day this week at 8 a.m. That skate will be moved to 10 a.m. on Thursday. Full training camp opens on Saturday, Sept. 18.

Holtby Tuning Up
Braden Holtby, who turned in a fine year as the No. 2 netminder in Hershey last season, has been working out with the rookies to get more reps. He is hoping to be sharp when camp opens and realizes that with four goalies at the NHL camp, including Semyon Varlamov, Michael Neuvirth, Danny Sabourin and himself), he might not get as much work as he would like.

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