By Kirk Luedeke
With heightened expectations for the Washington Capitals entering the 2011-12 NHL campaign, the blue line promises to be an area of scrutiny for the prohibitive favorites to lead the Eastern Conference during the regular season.
John Carlson (Marlborough, Mass.) and Dennis Wideman are two players who could benefit the most from Washington’s depth on the blue line especially when it comes to the power play. With Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik in the mix, the foursome promises to make a lethal offense that much more dangerous this season.
“The season’s starting now,” Carlson (pictured left) said after practice Thursday. “We started off simple and now we’re getting closer to the season and we’re getting into more specific stuff.”
Addressing questions about the lethality of his club especially with the man advantage has become old hat for Carlson, who spent his rookie season seeing a good amount of time on special teams. With seven goals and 37 points in all 82 games for Washington, Carlson shined, and will have a chance to build on that successful individual performance.
Still, things ended with bitter disappointment when the power play couldn’t solve Dwayne Roloson and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who swept the heavily-favored Caps in the second round. Washington didn’t have the services of Wideman, who was recovering from a leg infection that kept him out of the postseason, but with the 28-year-old fully healthy, plus Hamrlik on board, this group could be a real handful for opponents all year.
“You’re never happy when people are injured and out of the lineup,” said Carlson. “A healthy team is the best team and right now, we’re doing pretty good in that department.”
Like the rest of the team, Carlson is working on getting his overall timing and game back after the summer layoff, but doesn’t set the bar low when projecting what he needs to address at the young age of 21.
“I think I’d like to do a lot of things better,” Carlson said. “We’ll see how the season goes, how it’s starting. We have a great team, and I’m just going to be here every day, work as hard as I can and find my place and just play my game.”
Wideman is in his first full year with the Capitals after coming over from the Florida Panther’s at the trade deadline. Although he missed the playoffs because of a strange leg infection, but is healthy and glad to be back to work.
“Right now, we’ve still got a lot of guys here, so I haven’t been on the ice with Ovi or guys like that yet,” Wideman told New England Hockey Journal after the second session. “(Thursday) was my first day with (Nicklas Backstrom. At this time, you’re not really getting the feel, because a lot of the guys you haven’t really seen yet. But, as you go forward and the numbers start getting down, it’s definitely beneficial to be practicing a lot more going into the season with the team than just coming in halfway through.”
Like Carlson, Wideman has been around the team enough that he’s not a new face, and even though there may be some bigger names on the blue line. Both are being counted on to help keep the Capitals near the top of the NHL’s elite clubs.
“When you can roll three-deep there (on defense) or three-deep can play a lot of minutes, you can obviously play harder at 20 minutes than you can at 27,” Wideman said of the club’s blue line depth. “So, I think that when you can play guys in all situations and a lot, it should keep us healthier and give us a lot more energy come playoff time than in past years.”
Given that depth, Carlson knows that the work done at this point will be important for earning coach Bruce Boudreau’s trust going forward.
“Just get better,” Carlson said when asked what his focus is for this stage of training camp. “It doesn’t matter what you can do in the summer– there’s nothing like training camp. There’s nothing like getting in the games again. It’s basically just, go out there and do whatever you can to get better.”
With a nasty offense that has been going full throttle since 2008, the team had struggled to make the difference at the defense and goaltending positions. However, general manager George McPhee made some bold moves to inject skill, experience and depth at all positions. With those moves come higher expectations, but Wideman is used to such situations, having come from the Boston Bruins, who finished as the top club in the Eastern Conference in 2009, only to get bounced by Carolina in a second-round playoff upset.
“This team has had high expectations for the past few years,” he said. “Our guys are one year older, and now we’re not really all that young anymore. I think this is the year we have to make a statement and we’re built to do that. We’ve got some key guys who are older and have been around and should add leadership to the room.
“I think that going forward, we’re real solid on defense and obviously, Tomas Vokoun bolsters us in the net. I think this is the year we gotta go.”