Capitals' deadline deals already paying dividends

March 23, 1994|By Phil Jackman

LANDOVER -- Checking out the players they sent to center ice for the opening faceoff against the Hartford Whalers last night says something about the recent state of the Washington Capitals.

Taking the drop and centering the first line was Joe Juneau, until about 28 hours before a member of the Boston Bruins. One of the opening defensemen was Joe Reekie, ditto the Tampa Bay Lightning.

One shift later, defenseman Jim Johnson, who started the week in the hockey hotbed of Dallas, was giving up the body for the greater glory of the Caps. So much for the long-held theory that months of practice and games are required to assure a smooth-running machine.

The new kids on the block appeared as if they had been wearing the red, white and blue every day of their professional lives. Especially Juneau, who arrived at a cost of Al Iafrate.

Joe's a load. He was throwing passes out there during Washington's 4-1 cruise past the Whalers not seen since Magic Johnson retired. He assisted on the first two Caps goals and scored the fourth. Despite missing nine games in Beantown, Juneau has 75 points on 15 goals and 60 assists and the only Capital even in the neighborhood is Mike Ridley with 64 points.

As for Reekie and Johnson, they're throwbacks to the days when Washington backliners took their assignments seriously and didn't go wandering off up the ice, often with disastrous results.

Hartford was credited with six shots in the first period, four in the second and six in the third for a total of 16, 30 fewer than Washington. The victory might have been one of the easiest posted among Don Beaupre's 251.

The new defensemen and the holdovers weren't standing the attacking Whalers up at the blue line, they were bumping chests at the red line and before. And the forwards were part of the action, too.

Of course, it was Hartford, which has a record of 24-42-8 and is 13th in the 14-team Eastern Conference, but as Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld has reminded at least a thousand times since he took over behind the bench Jan. 27, "If this team will stick to its defensive game, it can play with anyone."

As the Caps played their first six games in March without victory (0-4-2) and the trading deadline neared Monday afternoon, it became unmistakably apparent that something had to be done.

After all, the Capitals live and die by the trade, mostly because the organization has never shown even average ability to develop players in its own system.

Grabbing the two defensemen for a two of guys who can fight, Alan May and Enrico Ciccone, plus a couple of draft choices was a steal. See previous reference to Caps' ability to help themselves via the draft.

In the long run, most of the action on trade deadline day will come down to the Juneau-for-Iafrate swap. It's difficult seeing how this can end up a loser for Washington since Big Al had all but worn out his welcome here.

Listed as a defenseman and sent to the All-Star Game as such, mainly because every team in the league has to be represented, Iafrate never played much defense. In the last nine games he played for the Caps, Al's blunders directly transformed three victories into two losses and a tie as the club wallowed along at 2-5-2.

It has been apparent all season that Iafrate and team captain Kevin Hatcher have been leaning on their fine offensive performances of last year to the detriment of what used to be considered one of the strongest defenses throughout the NHL.

The pity is that despite the clarity of the situation, Hatcher still has no clue about how bad he has been playing for at least a couple of seasons.

Juneau's reaction to the trade, which he didn't expect after having been told he was nearly an untouchable, and his first game as a Cap was, "I'm looking forward to having more fun."

This reply can be explained two ways: First, Joe wasn't getting along too well in Boston this year and, second, USAir Arena has a standard-size NHL ice surface. The Boston Garden's is decidedly smaller, which works against a guy who likes to buzz around and set up scoring opportunities with nifty passes.

"I don't care what wingers I play with. I'm here to work," he said.

Meanwhile, the forwards took just one look at Juneau's ability to deliver the puck to the front of the opposition net consistently before making a beeline for Schoenfeld's office and volunteering to be included on his line.

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