WASHINGTON — This will be a pivotal season for the Washington Capitals, an aging team still searching for its first championship pennant. It also will be a key season for left wing Geoff Courtnall and defenseman Neil Sheehy, two newcomers who would like to help provide the Capitals with that needed push over the top.
Satisfied with their performances midway through the past season, Courtnall and Sheehy suddenly became vagabonds, with multiple trades giving each the distinction of having played in three of the National Hockey League's four divisions since New Year's Day.
Courtnall, who was bounced from Boston to Edmonton in the Andy Moog deal in March, earned a Stanley Cup ring, but then felt the Oilers considered such baubles a substitute for a fair wage.
A free agent, Courtnall signed an offer sheet with the New York Rangers, but wound up in Washington when General Manager David Poile spotted a loophole, since plugged, and engineered a July deal with Edmonton.
Sheehy considered himself a mainstay of a Calgary team that had been a Stanley Cup finalist in 1986 and was at the top of the NHL standings last year. But he was dealt to Hartford in January and, after he saw limited duty there, was shipped to Washington in July.
Courtnall had 32 goals in 62 games for the Bruins, managed only four in 12 for Edmonton and then had the misfortune to go 19 playoff games without a score. He expects to return to his Boston production figures here, having already been penciled in as a linemate for Dale Hunter.
"I was disappointed when I left Boston, because things had been going so well," said Courtnall, 26. "I was getting plenty of ice time and playing on the power play.
"Edmonton is a great team and it was exciting to go there and win the Stanley Cup--that was a lifetime dream. But the playoffs were really weird, because I was on the third or fourth line and our job was just to go out and hit, to keep the intensity level up while the other guys rested.
"I was getting some chances, but nothing was going in. The more I thought about it, the harder it got to score. But they told me not to worry about it, just keep checking, and the other guys certainly scored enough to win.
"Hopefully, I was saving it for this year. It's nice to be in a situation where I'll be on the power play and get a lot of ice time. It's kind of a fresh start for me. And I've already been treated better here in two weeks than in my whole career before."
Since Courtnall's 36 goals constituted three-quarters of the production by Washington's entire left side last season, his scoring touch--when he regains it--guarantees to make him a welcome addition to the Capitals. Sheehy, however, finds himself in a fight for ice time similar to the one he left in Hartford.
Washington has a solid defensive four of Scott Stevens, Rod Langway, Kevin Hatcher and Larry Murphy. Seeking a chance to play in their shadows can be a frustrating experience, as Garry Galley learned before he chose free agency and Boston. However, Galley was an offensive talent who sometimes left a hole on defense; the coaching staff knows that Sheehy will stay home.
"This is a big year for me," said Sheehy, 28. "I have to make a move this year. I don't want to be out of the game. Last year, I was having the best year of my career until January, then it turned out to be the worst year. Early in the season, I was a young player, then I was an aged player.
"I felt things couldn't turn that fast, but they did. I have to turn it back. I have high expectations here and I'm glad I'm out of Hartford. Everybody likes to play and my ice time was cut in half there.
"Washington has its big four, no question. But they indicate to me that they're a very defensive team and they want a player they feel comfortable with defensively. I hope I fill that bill and can earn their respect and confidence."
Sheehy was a high school teammate of former Capitals Bob Mason and Gary Sampson in International Falls, Minn., although he was born in Fort Frances, Ontario, and holds dual citizenship.
"The hospital in Ontario was about a mile from our house in Minnesota," Sheehy said. "When I made the NHL and announcers said I was a native of Ontario, people jumped all over me, so I'm trying to get my birthplace listed as International Falls, but it isn't easy."
Sheehy, 6-2 and 210 pounds, has an economics degree from Harvard, where he was a member of the boxing club. He credits the Crimson's coach, Bill Cleary, for boosting his skills to NHL class.
"In Minnesota, I always hit, but at Harvard Cleary pulled me aside and said, 'I don't want you hitting so much. I know you're tough, but I want you to work more on stickhandling and skating.' I was able to improve my game, instead of just hitting, and that's probably why I'm still around."