With newly signed and recalled defenseman Steve Oleksy on the ice for Tuesday’s morning skate, the Washington Capitals had nine defensemen on the ice for that session. That total includes Jack Hillen (upper body injury) but not Mike Green (lower body injury), who did not participate in Tuesday’s a.m. twirl.
That’s a lot of defensemen, even when two of them are not healthy enough to play.
You don’t have to tell Roman Hamrlik that. After playing in each of the Caps’ first three games this season, Hamrlik has dressed for just one of the last 17 and has been a healthy scratch for each of the other 16.
In an effort to loosen that blueline logjam, the Caps placed the 38-year-old Hamrlik on waivers Tuesday.
The first player chosen overall in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, Hamrlik signed a two-year deal with the Caps for a total of $7 million on July 1, 2011. He played in 68 games for Washington in 2011-12, and also appeared in all 14 of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup playoff games last spring.
The NHL’s leader among all active players in career games played with 1,383, Hamrlik will be a free agent at season’s end. Any of the other 29 teams in the league can claim him and the remainder of his contract (roughly $1.1 million) before the expiration of the waiver period at noon on Wednesday.
If no NHL team claims Hamrlik during that period, the Caps would be able to re-assign him to AHL Hershey if they chose to do so. They are under no obligation to send him to the Bears if he does clear.
Hamrlik has been idle for nearly a month, since logging 16:11 in a Feb. 7 game against the Penguins in Pittsburgh. He has sat out nine straight games since, and he sat out seven straight prior to that showing in Pittsburgh. The Caps are 0-4 in the four games in which Hamrlik has played this season.
The 27-year-old Oleksy makes his NHL debut tonight against the Bruins, becoming the oldest Capital to do so since Tyler Sloan played in his first NHL game for Washington at the age of 27 on Oct. 21, 2008 in Calgary. Oleksy will skate alongside 35-year-old veteran Tom Poti in tonight’s game.
Caps coach Adam Oates called Oleksy’s learning curve “incredible,” and said he was probably Hershey’s most improved player. Coming off a 3-0 win over the Jets in Winnipeg on Saturday, the Caps face a big test tonight against the Bruins, a team that has taken at least a point in 16 of its 19 games this season.
“In talking to [general manager] George [McPhee], I felt we had a good game in Winnipeg,” says Oates. “But as I’ve said all along, I really believe in balance. And having three righties included in that piece is very important to me. Boston is a team that comes down the walls, and they don’t give you many second chances so you need that first play to be a good one.
“Having [Oleksy] in Hershey, he knows the system and he helps us with the boards.”
Hamrlik is a lefty, a factor that made it difficult for him to get into the lineup for the last month.
Oleksy is not big (6-foot-0, 195 pounds), but he has proven to be a tough customer, dropping the gloves 51 times during his pro career and 11 times with Hershey this season. But Oates stressed that balance was the primary reason for Oleksy’s recall.
“I know that’s part of his game,” says Oates, “but I already talked to him and that’s not why he is here. It’s not. We need him to play. We need him to play and to match up with Tom and we need to be able to break out of the zone. We need to handle their forecheck, that’s what it’s about.”
It’s also worth noting that the Caps wouldn’t sign a player for three years if they were only recalling him to face a specific foe on a specific night.
With Oleksy, John Erskine, Tomas Kundratek and Poti all in the lineup tonight, two-thirds of Washington’s defense corps is populated with blueliners who didn’t necessarily figure in the team’s top six at the outset of training camp.
At the start of last season, the Caps had Green, John Carlson and Dennis Wideman on the right side. Tonight they’ll have Carlson, Kundratek and Oleksy. Kundratek made his NHL debut against Winnipeg at Verizon Center on Jan. 22 and he will be playing in his 20th career NHL contest tonight.
Oleksy started this season – his fourth full season as a pro – with AHL Hershey, the first of those seasons he has started above the ECHL level. Oleksy rose steadily up the Hershey depth chart and he impressed Caps coach Adam Oates during the first six weeks of the season when the bench boss was in Hershey helping out behind the Bears’ bench. Oleksy was also a top Bears performer on Dec. 6 when the Bears played Norfolk in the AHL Classic at Verizon Center.
“They just want me to play my game,” says Oleksy of the Capitals. “We’ve all been playing hockey for a long time. No matter what level, you have to play within your means and know what you’re good at. Obviously I’m going to try to play a physical game and bring that side of things, make a good first pass and be strong defensively.”
A native of Chesterfield, Mich., Oleksy played three seasons at Lake Superior State before turning pro late in the 2008-09 campaign. He has played 257 regular season games as a pro, but just 122 of those have come at the AHL level.
“It was pretty unexpected,” says Oleksy of getting the contract offer and recall from Hershey yesterday. “As a hockey player, you show up for work every day and you give 100 percent. You work as hard as you can and you let the puzzle pieces fall where they may.”
Oleksy’s parents and his older brother and his girlfriend made the all-night drive from Michigan to get to D.C. in time to see him make his NHL debut against the Bruins tonight.
“As you climb up the ladder,” notes Oleksy, “you really appreciate and you really see how much time and effort parents have put into it, whether it be early morning practices or driving to the rink, all the gas, hotels, tournaments and ice bills. It’s an expensive sport to play and obviously they’ve made some sacrifices for me to play a sport that I love. This is kind of a little payback.”