If the 2011-12 NHL season could be wiped from history, Washington Capitals forward Wojtek Wolski surely wouldn't mind.
It started out promising enough. Wolski was playing well in intersquad scrimmages during training camp with the New York Rangers, who traded for him in January 2011, and he saw time on their top line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik during the preseason.
That forward momentum, however, came to a screeching halt when a groin injury and sports hernia that required surgery in November 2011 cost him two months. Upon his return in January 2012, Wolski spent most of his time in the press box as a healthy scratch, and when he did crack the lineup, it was on the fourth line playing less than 10 minutes per game -- not the place for a guy who was already a two-time 20-goal scorer after just seven years in the NHL.
After languishing as a healthy scratch for over a month, the Rangers shipped Wolski to the Florida Panthers on Feb. 25, 2012. Wolski scored in his first game with the Panthers and saw regular ice time, but as they participated in their first postseason since 2000 last spring, Wolski did not, watching Games 3-7 in a suit and tie.
To no one's surprise, Florida opted not to retain Wolski after his two-year, $7.6 million contract expired. With his career at a self-described "crossroads," the 26-year-old signed with Washington -- his fifth team in eight years -- for just $600,000 this July with the hope that he could rejuvenate his career.
"I definitely think that's the point I'm at in my career," Wolski said Wednesday after the Caps completed their fourth day of training camp. "I have to do everything I can to show that I'm still that player. After surgery last year, I'm sure there's a lot of questions about how I'll bounce back. At this point, I'm doing everything in my power to make sure that I'm ready, that I can succeed and given the opportunity that I can strive and do well."
Wolski did not think he was being properly utilized during his time in New York and Florida, and added that he was beginning to get down on himself and his abilities. Washington, however, recognized that a forward with the amount of skill that Wolski possesses should be given an opportunity to contribute regularly on the offensive end. Throughout training camp, Wolski has skated on the second line with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer and saw time on the Caps' second power play unit during practice Wednesday.
"We're hoping that he has a big year," head coach Adam Oates said. "He's a very talented guy, he's a big kid. I think he fits in well there. We're hoping he has success."
Matt Hendricks, who was Wolski's teammate and road roommate when the latter scored 17 goals and added 30 assists in 68 games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10 (he finished the season with the Phoenix Coyotes and a career-high 23 goals), knows how good he can be when he's at his best.
"He's a very skilled player," Hendricks said. "And when I say that, I mean he's good with the puck. He has good vision, he makes good passes, he's got a good shot. He's got all the intangibles that make a skill guy a skill guy, but he's also a big body with a good amount of speed, so what you'lll see from that is you'll see him drive wide, and with his size and strength, he can take the puck to the net, which is a big force because it allows his linemates an opportunity to score as well."
Wolski understands that time and chances are limited, but now he is part of a team that he believes suits his game -- and he is prepared to make his fifth NHL stop his last.
"After two tough seasons, you've gotta bounce back, you've gotta show that you belong, that you can still do it," Wolski said. "I'm at the point where I'm going to give it everything I have. I want to make a home for myself here in Washington and stick with a team. I don't want to go anywhere else and I don't want to switch teams again. There's a great opportunity here and I'm excited."
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