Entering play against the New Jersey Devils Friday night, the Washington Capitals led the NHL in minutes played by rookies this season. It's not an insignificant statistic, as the Caps are now in a three-way tie for second most points in the league and preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It's fairly remarkable that a team that is relying so heavily on first year players -- and struggled so hard in the middle of the season -- is now enjoying the fruits of their labor. Take, for instance, the No. 2 team in minutes by rookies this season, the last-in-the-league Edmonton Oilers.
The Capitals -- with the strong play of late from Marcus Johansson, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Michal Neuvirth and Jay Beagle -- are being rewarded for their patience with these young players coming through for them on a nightly basis.
The Caps aren't "hiding" these players either. Neuvirth has been the No. 1 goalie, playing in 43 of the team's 73 games. And it's not like they have a veteran backup on the bench, as Semyon Varlamov (24 games) -- barely past rookie status himself, and third goalie Braden Holtby (13 games) have also been stellar when their numbers have been called.
Washington has rookies playing major minutes and contributing heavily on special teams. Carlson and Alzner are the top defensive pairing, regularly matching up against the opponents top line night after night. Johansson, who at the start of the season really looked like he could have used a year in the "A" to get used to North American hockey, was a plus-3 last night centering Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble.
All of them seem to be playing better as the season progresses, as opposed to hitting some sort of "rookie wall", wearing out under the rigors of an NHL schedule and the pressure of a playoff race.
Coach Bruce Boudreau spoke about how crucial the contribution has been from his rookies after practice today, a 45 minutes session of passing, skating and conditioning drills, little more than 12 hours after their latest win, a 3-0 shut out of the previously red-hot Devils in the swamps of Jersey.
"It's been everything. We've had five and six rookies [in the lineup] every night. If they don't improve, then we wouldn't be in the position we're in. So they have improved.
They've gotten better and I think we've done a pretty good job as an organization in monitoring their ice time, especially up front from 10 minutes, you know, some of them start at seven minutes, nine minutes...now they're playing 15 minutes. And playing them in important situations, I think, is probably the big key. John [Carlson] and Karl [Alzner] have played in every big situation, Marcus [Johansson] kills penalties, is on the power play. Beagle kills penalties. All these guys are put into positions [where] we really need them to do well, and they've responded very favorably."
The importance of the development of the rookies hasn't gone unnoticed by the veterans on the team either.
"It's been great," Matt Hendricks said about the progress the younger players are making. "I think that their ice time, their minutes are going up, they're succeeding, they're battling and any time you get those types of guys that are here to buy into the team and the team only you're going to find a lot of success."
The most veteran on the team, Mike Knuble, discussed how integral the contributions from the rookies have been, and how vital to the team their progression has been.
"I think we've all gotten stronger as the year's gone along and so have they. It takes time to play in this league, and to be honest, you think with rookies there's going to be a drop-off instead of a steady climb up.
The pace of the season, the grind, injuries mount up, the amount of practicing, the traveling and all that starts to get to you in February, even for the veteran players. But it's hard on first year guys who haven't been through it before. But they've steadily climbed in their play, and they've big big parts of our team. And not only on five-on-five play, but killing penalties, Marcus has killed a lot of penalties, Jay Beagle's stepped in. A lot of guys have helped out. You know, without them we're not getting very far, either.
With only nine games remaining in the regular season, it's hard to call these young players rookies anymore. But it speaks volumes to the philosophy the organization of integrating youngsters into a mix of players entering their prime and savvy veterans looking for a chance at the Cup.
Their best players are still young, they are mixing in rookies with increasingly positive results, and there's more talent coming up through the system.
There were times this season when the Capitals legitimately struggled, searching for an identity among the assembled parts. But as with the rookies, their patience is paying off. They've committed to being more responsible on defense, have been the beneficiary of some terrific goaltending, and are peaking at the right time of the year.
Now, can we talk about the power play?