There was a time a few short years ago when I referred to the Washington Capitals as the "Scrapitals." I meant it as a compliment in that they worked hard, and even though the standings didn't reflect it, that ethic made them a tough opponent almost every night despite a roster that was thin in the upper-end talent department.
My nickname for the Capitals did not mean they were a collection of bodies rescued off the scrapheap. On the contrary, several players from those teams are now pivotal members of a formidable and legitimate contender to reach the Stanley Cup Final this spring.
On Saturday, I watched the Capitals dismante the Thrashers, 8-1, in Atlanta. I was positioned between the benches for that one, getting an up-close glimpse of a wildly talented and confident bunch from Washington. The win pushed the Southeast-leading Capitals to 9-1 against their division.
It's easy to characterize Caps vs. Thrashers as Alexander Ovechkin vs. Ilya Kovalchuk, but Washington's wonderfully gifted, newly-minted captain sits atop a bedrock foundation comprised of Brooks Laich, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr and David Steckel. Where they once had to scrap for every last point in two successive 70-point campaigns (2005-06 and 2006-07), the Capitals now have a rangy, gritty and determined nucleus. Laich, Bradley and Gordon are veterans of those lean seasons (both fifth-place finishes in the Southeast) when Fehr (11 games in 2005-06) and Steckel (7) made their NHL debuts before earning regular roster spots a few years later.
General manager George McPhee told me that during the "Scrapitals" years, the plan was to forge an identity first. As the skill level rose -- which it certainly did with the gradual infusion from Alexander Semin (2003) to Ovechkin and Mike Green (2005) to Nicklas Backstrom (2007) -- the team would be in position to challenge at the top. The Caps built their identity on the work rate of role players. It helps that Ovechkin is a rarity as a rock 'em sock 'em superstar -- a perfect fit as the face of the franchise and a natural choice as captain. Yet, the moves the Caps made at the time of his captaincy announcement were significant, too.
Former captain Chris Clark and defenseman Milan Jurcina went to Columbus for veteran Jason Chimera. That cleared the way to put the C on Ovechkin, but the trade also brought in a true left-winger (Chimera) when the Caps had been overstocked with righties and playing Clark on his off-wing. Chimera is another sizeable and dependable role player who can likewise skate -- important in the Capitals' dizzying approach to the game in all three zones.
McPhee also signed Steckel and another versatile depth player, Tyler Sloan, to contract extensions. Neither the trade nor the signings were headline-grabbers, but they are telling in that they show how the Capitals pay as much attention to details as they do to big moves when it comes to roster construction. McPhee has assembled a team that can play it any way an opponent chooses, assuming, of course, that the opposition has the wherewithal to dictate at all against the NHL's top scoring team.
That's what drew me in while watching the Capitals against the Thrashers. Sure, Semin had two goals and Backstrom had one, but Steckel owned the faceoff circle like he has all season as the team's top draw man. Laich laid out to keep a play alive down low, diving to win a battle even though the score was 4-1 at the time. Chimera chased down pucks all night, eventually netting his first goal as a member of the Capitals. Collectively, they continued to work the walls and make smart, small-area hockey plays.
In getting up close to the Capitals, I witnessed a team that has all the pieces to compete far outside the Southeast. Its scrappiest pieces were forged during difficult times that no doubt steeled them for the more difficult battles ahead.