The Washington Capitals
badly needing help on the blue line this summer flirted with the idea of signing Ottawa All-Star defenseman Zdeno Chara
. Ultimately, the thrifty Capitals opted to sign his less-heralded and even less-expensive teammate, Brian Pothier
In hindsight, there was no way the Capitals would have paid out the average of $7.5 million per season that Chara later received from the Boston Bruins
. Yet the signing of the puck-moving Pothier did not come without some risk of its own.
Pothier played as a No. 5 defenseman with the defense-rich Senators in his first full NHL season. But the Capitals envisioned a much larger role for Pothier, most likely as the team's No. 1 defenseman. The question was, could he make the jump?
The move has paid off in a big way and Pothier is playing every bit as well as Chara. The 29-year-old Pothier ranks fifth in the league in minute, averaging 27:04 a game. That's impressive considering he is basically playing the same number amount of minutes as former Norris Trophy winners Chris Pronger
(27:24) and Scott Niedermayer
(26:47) of the Anaheim Ducks
Pothier has been a big part of the reason why the Capitals are playoff contenders a year after the team was in the running for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
"He's added a lot of skill to our blue line and made a big difference on the team," Washington General Manager George McPhee says. "He's certainly been responsible for our better record."
Pothier's biggest impact has been on special teams. The Capitals' power play ranked 25th in the league last season, converting only 14.7 percent of its opportunities. It's a different story this year. Washington is making 16.4 percent of its chances, which ranks 16th in the NHL. Pothier quarterbacks the power play and has 12 assists in 23 games.
"He reads the play well and makes good smart decisions," says Washington assistant coach Jay Leach
, who works with the Capitals' defensemen. "He is a great breakout guy. It's one of the things we had trouble with last year. We could not at times get the puck out of our zone."
Playing so many more minutes with Washington has been quite an adjustment for Pothier since he averaged 17 minutes a game with Ottawa last year. The 6-foot 195-pound Pothier knew the big jump in ice time was coming, so he worked out like a maniac during the off-season. He focused on cardiovascular training more than in the past, putting in rigorous three-hour sessions daily.
"I just ramped up the intensity,” Pothier said. "I did a lot more of everything. With the new rules, I spent a ton of time trying to get my feet agile and mobile."
The defensive play of Pothier is sometimes overlooked. He's been paired with rising 23-year-old Shaone Morrisonn
. The pair plays against opponent's No. 1 line.
"We didn't realize how good defensively he can be," Leach says. "Brian is not a big guy, but he gets his body in great position and he is not afraid to stick his nose into the play."
The Capitals made a big commitment to Pothier, signing him to a four-year, $10 million deal. It's the longest contract extended to any player on the roster and the richest deal McPhee has given out since forward Robert Lang
inked a five-year, $25 million contract in 2002. For a No. 1 defenseman, Pothier is proving to be worth the money.
Pothier, an undrated player out of RPI, emerged on the NHL scene last season with the Ottawa Senators
."When he decided to sign with us he had other choices for the same amount of money, but he wanted to come here," McPhee says.
Pothier said picking the rebuilding Capitals was a relatively easy decision.
"I get that question a lot," he says of why Washington. "If you look at this team, it's young and energetic. It's fun to be around. It's got a great foundation for the future, and to be part of that is very attractive for me."
The late blooming Pothier seemed to come out of nowhere last season in Ottawa to put together an eye-catching season. Before that, he'd played in only seven games across three seasons with Ottawa and Atlanta. He spent four full seasons in the minors: three in the American Hockey League (Binghamton, Chicago) and one in the International Hockey League (Orlando).
But Pothier, who went undrafted and played college hockey at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, got his big break with the new NHL rule changes last season and he totaled five goals and 30 assists in 77 games. Even more impressive was his plus-29.
"He wasn't getting the kind of minutes he deserved in Ottawa," Leach says.
McPhee was more than willing to give Pothier all the ice time he wanted in Washington.
"You can tell Brian you don't have to be 6-3 to play in the NHL," McPhee says. "The best players are the smartest players. He is a really smart player." --