The Capitals July development camp provided the usual storylines: undrafted rookies trying to make their mark on the team, returning players taking the ice with another year of experience under their belts, and top prospects looking NHL ready or having disappointingly stagnated. But there was one noticeably atypical note from camp: the team's decision to play Joe Finley at forward.
Ostensibly the move was made to keep roster balance when Anton Gustafsson went down with an injury. But the fact that Finley is listed as a forward on the team's rookie camp roster, has worked out as a forward this week (when he's been on the ice), and was told by Bruce Boudreau to try and get some work in as a forward over the summer indicates that the organization now feels it is in their (and Finley's) best interest for the former first round draft pick to play as a wing. The bad news for Capitals fans is that the decision says more about how the team feels about Finley's potential as a defenseman than his potential as a wing.
Simply put there's nothing in Finley's skill set or amateur production that suggest he can be effective as a scorer. In 154 games at the University of North Dakota he tallied 35 only points and seven goals. Scouting reports don't indicate Finley's shot as particularly quick or accurate, his passing is regarded as merely adequate, and any praise of his skating ability is followed with a caveat along the lines of 'for a player his size' or 'for a big man'. Could there be something there that the Capitals scouts and coaching staff see but has escaped everyone else? It's possible, but unlikely.
In reality the role the Capitals are envisioning for Finley at this point can probably be deduced not only from his size and on-ice temperament but from the history of other NHL defensemen-turned-wingers, guys like Paul Bissonnette, Patrick Kaleta, Wade Brookbank, Wade Belak, and Eric Godard, players who have combined for 1,006 NHL games and 26 goals -- and 2,295 penalty minutes. Finley seems more like to follow in the paths of these players than in that of, say, Dustin Byfuglien, the NHL's premier former-defenseman-winger. Though Finley, at 6'7'', 245 pounds, has a frame comparable to Byfuglien's 6'3'', 247 pounds, Byfuglien was a productive offensive blueliner before converting to the wing, scoring 38 goals over his last two seasons in juniors and 16 in the AHL the year before he cemented an NHL roster spot. In short, Finley looks lot more likely to become an enforcer than a productive power forward at the NHL level.
Put aside the argument as to whether or not enforcers are even necessary for the sake of simplicity and Finley's career prospects still look dubious. Yes, he's big. Yes, he's strong. Yes, he's ornery. But he has also been playing an amateur league that asseses a game misconduct for a fighting major for the past four seasons. As a result Finley's fought exactly once since 2005, an AHL fight against the aforementioned Bissonnette that, um, didn't end all that well:
Of course, this doesn't mean Finley can't or won't be an effective professional fighter - he did have 11 USHL fights back in 2004-05. But it does mean he still has yet to prove he can be.
In the end what we're left with is a former defenseman who's being asked to become a forward though he hasn't shown much in the way of offense ability, and asked to become an enforcer though he hasn't shown much in the way acumen in the fisticuffs department. It appears the Capitals plan for Joe Finley is built entirely on hope: they're hoping he can develop into an effective deterrent, hoping he can find some measure of productivity as a forward, and hoping he can figure out how to do it at the NHL level. At this point Finley has become a salvage project for an organization that looks to have lost all faith he can be a productive professional defenseman.
The 2005 draft just keeps on giving, doesn't it?