Almost three months of would-be regular-season hockey have slipped away without a single player slapping a puck or thumping a body in an NHL game.
The players can’t wait to play.
Tom Poti knows this feeling more than most of his union mates.
The Worcester native hasn’t dressed for an NHL game in nearly two years. On Jan. 12, 2011, Poti skated just 10 shifts for 5:38 of ice time with Washington in a 3-0 loss to Tampa Bay. Since then, the Cushing Academy graduate’s career has been dark, his game ledger blank as he wonders whether his days as an NHLer are over.
“It was a long, miserable year last year, just sitting around and watching,” said Poti.
Poti and the Capitals first believed that chronic groin troubles were keeping him off the ice; he had been slowed by groin woes earlier in his career.
But a 2011 visit to St. Louis led to a different conclusion. After conducting an MRI, Dr. L. Michael Brunt diagnosed Poti with a fractured pelvis.
“I remember crashing into the boards — I think it was the second period one game — with a fresh sheet of ice,” Poti recalled. “Fresh sheet of ice, we’re both going back for the puck, and I crashed into the boards.
“I felt like there was a pop. I figured it was the groin again, because that had happened before. We’d gone that route, so we didn’t know what it was for a while.”
In his healthier days, Poti was the right fit for Washington’s premium-gas attack. On July 1, 2007, Capitals general manager George McPhee signed Poti to a four-year, $14 million contract. The offensive-minded defenseman was expected to complement the existing skilled players.
In 71 games in 2007-08, Poti had 2 goals and 27 assists while averaging 23:28 of ice time per game. His puck-moving skills fit effectively with Alex Ovechkin (65-47—112), Nicklas Backstrom (14-55—69), and Mike Green (18-38—56).
On Sept. 21, 2010, the Capitals re-signed Poti to a two-year, $5.75 million extension, which would become effective in 2011-12. Young defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner projected to be full-time NHLers, but the Capitals believed Poti would be a valuable second- or third-pairing veteran throughout his extension.
Poti’s pelvis injury shattered those projections. He tried to return to the lineup for the playoffs. The Capitals dismissed the Rangers in the first round in five games, but in the second round, they were swept by Tampa Bay, ending Poti’s comeback hopes. In hindsight, Poti shouldn’t have tried to return at all.
“I think I set myself back trying to get back for that playoff series,” Poti said. “I kind of screwed myself by trying to do that.”
Doctors concluded that surgery wouldn’t be the right option. The pelvis had to heal on its own.
During exit meetings following the 2011 playoffs, team doctors ordered a complete shutdown — no running, no biking — to let the injury settle down. On July 1, 2011, knowing that Poti would not be ready for the start of 2011-12, the Capitals signed veteran blue liner Roman Hamrlik to a two-year contract.
Last season, Poti tried to resume skating shortly after the Christmas break. He felt good at first. But after performing stops and starts and more explosive skating, Poti realized he wasn’t close. He could only watch as Washington punted his hometown club from the playoffs in seven games.
Had 2012-13 started on time, Poti would not have been ready to play.
Poti, who lives in Sandwich during the offseason, resumed skating in September. At first, he was limited to five- to 10-minute skates. Most recently, he has been practicing alongside other local NHLers at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.
Poti’s effortless skating has been one of his assets. He looked smooth during sessions last week. But the 35-year-old acknowledged feeling some pain after the on-ice workouts. And he has yet to take contact.
When the lockout lifts, Poti will report to Washington for testing and camp. If the season begins Jan. 19, Poti isn’t sure whether he could be in uniform. The Capitals were built under the assumption that he will not be ready. Alzner and Carlson project to be the first pairing, Green and Hamrlik the second duo, while John Erskine, Jeff Schultz, and Dmitry Orlov could round out the defense.
This is the final year of Poti’s contract. It may be his last deal. If so, he would like at least one more whirl before his career is over.
“I’m just trying to focus on whether I can play or not right now,” Poti said. “If I can go out and do it, I’ll be so excited and so happy. Then hopefully I can get another year after this. Right now, I’m just focusing on trying to play. For my own sanity.”
CAUGHT IN A CLOT
Quite a scare for McQuaid
Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid remains hopeful that once the season begins, he will be ready to play alongside his teammates.
“I’m not really sure,” said McQuaid, who has been skating and shooting during informal practices. “I hope that I’ll be as close as possible. But I’m not really sure. I’ll probably have a better feel once we get back and get into the swing of things.”
That there is even a possibility of playing this year is a positive for McQuaid. The defenseman was diagnosed with a blood clot — he underwent surgery in October — that threatened to keep him off the ice for at least the entire season.
The operation required doctors to remove a rib under his right collarbone and part of a neck muscle. McQuaid was laid low for four weeks, instructed not to participate in any physical activity.
Approximately three weeks ago, doctors gave McQuaid the OK to stop taking blood thinners. He was originally scheduled to be on blood thinners longer, which would have prevented him from even skating.
“Initially, they thought it would be around six months,” McQuaid said. “Obviously, I wouldn’t have been able to play on medication. It was kind of devastating. But they keep telling me I’m ahead of schedule. I came off earlier than expected. So I was happy with that.”
The scare took place after McQuaid’s right arm ballooned following an informal practice at Harvard in September. The swelling, combined with McQuaid’s recollection that his arm was regularly falling asleep at night, led to the diagnosis.
McQuaid is off his usual playing weight. He will need to continue his off-ice training to rebuild his strength.
But for someone felled by a possible life-changing condition, McQuaid is happy to be on the ice, even if he isn’t in uniform just yet.
“I don’t think I realized for quite a while how serious it could have been,” McQuaid said. “It is a rare injury for hockey. You see it a little more often in baseball. At least those guys don’t have to deal with getting hit and stuff like that. Maybe some more question marks on that side of it.
“But right from the start, they were optimistic that I’d make a full recovery. It was tough to take the rest. I guess this situation made it a little different. I’m not used to not being able to lift things. But it’s part of the process to do what I’m told and progress as they’re telling me to.”
Cap feels tight on the Bruins
Depending on how negotiations unfold, the salary cap for 2013-14 could be as low as $60 million, which is the figure the NHL would prefer. The Bruins currently project to have approximately $57 million in payroll committed to 2013-14 in the form of 11 forwards, five defensemen, and zero goalies. Nathan Horton and Andrew Ference, who will become unrestricted free agents July 1, will most likely walk. The Bruins can exceed the cap by $4,007,143 by placing Marc Savard on long-term injured reserve. But that would leave less than $7 million available to re-sign Tuukka Rask, find a backup, and fill out the rest of the roster. For Rask, the benchmark is Carey Price’s deal with Montreal (six years, $39 million), although it’s unlikely he’ll receive such a payday. But assuming Rask submits the season Bruins expect from him, he could request a $5 million annual haul. The Bruins would then have less than $2 million for depth players. They could go the compliance buyout route (Chris Kelly at $3 million annually could be a candidate). Or they could seek cap relief via trade. David Krejci ($5.25 million) would draw interest. The concerns continue into 2014-15, when foundation pieces Patrice Bergeron and Dennis Seidenberg are scheduled to reach unrestricted free agency. Both are must-sign players. Seidenberg ($3.25 million) is due for a bigger hike than Bergeron ($5 million). The ceiling for 2014-15 has yet to be determined, but additional movement might be necessary for the Bruins to manage compliance.
The wailing you heard early Thursday morning was the sound of a country crying. The US upset Canada, 5-1, in the semifinals of the World Junior Championships. South of the border, the win barely tickled the consciousness of the average sports consumer. But in Canada, when the teenagers fall short of gold, it’s cause for sadness, hysteria, and navel-gazing. Goes to show that the hockey culture in America will never approach the fever in Canada. Which, when it comes to feel-good tournaments like the world juniors, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Home ice for Russians
Labor negotiations have not determined whether NHL players will be eligible to participate in the 2014 Winter Games. The issue is of the utmost significance to Russia, which will be hosting the Olympics. The Russians flamed out in Vancouver in 2010. They will be eager not to submit a repeat performance on home ice. If NHLers are not allowed to participate, it’s possible that some of the Russian players will decline to return to North America to gain Olympic eligibility. The issue is very important to the Russian federation.
Representatives for equipment manufacturers tried to keep business flowing during the lockout by visiting NHL clients overseas. The reps were not made welcome in several KHL cities, according to a source familiar with the proceedings . . . Local players have turned to former NHLer Mike Grier to lead their on-ice workouts. Grier, who retired after the 2010-11 season, has always been well-respected in various dressing rooms (Buffalo, San Jose, Washington, and Edmonton being his pro stops). Grier could command the same attention on an NHL or college bench . . . The lockout has given players multiple chances, whether in bargaining sessions or informal skates, to become better friends with non-teammates. It’s a nod to their competitiveness, then, that they’ll resume whaling away on each other once the lockout concludes. For example, Shawn Thornton ticked off the names of Travis Moen, Jim Vandermeer, and Mark Stuart, all fast friends, among the players he fought last year. “Stuey was at my house the day we fought,” Thornton said . . . Had the lockout lifted during the world juniors, the Bruins would have pulled Dougie Hamilton out of the tournament and brought the 19-year-old to camp. Moot point . . . Fifteen of the Americans who participated in the world juniors had gone through the National Team Development Program, USA Hockey’s proving ground for the country’s top prospects. It’s a huge advantage for the Americans over the Canadians, who gather for international tournaments and evaluation camps several times per year. Nothing can replicate regular, consistent practices with the same teammates . . . Former Northeastern goalie Adam Geragosian, son of BU goaltending coach Mike Geragosian, has been one of the puck-stoppers rotating through Agganis Arena to help the local pros stay sharp. The big boys haven’t been shy about ripping one-timers on the former collegian . . . Brad Marchand has spent stretches of the lockout hunting, one of his favorite pastimes. Marchand dropped two deer on his most recent outing. No truth to the rumor that Marchand ditched the safety orange to hunt without a shirt.