By Adam Vingan
The Washington Capitals’ meteoric rise to prominence in the NHL within the last four years is synonymous with a few names. Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom: these players have become superstars and have led the Caps to a continued string of success the likes of which has never been seen in Washington.
Yet, there is one player participating in this season’s training camp that became a part of the Caps organization before anyone had ever heard of any of the aforementioned players. While Graham Mink may not have the statistics or accolades on the NHL level, he has been an integral part of the Caps on the AHL level. After two years away, Mink returned to the Caps this summer for his third stint with the team.
“It feels great,” Mink said in regards to coming back. “I love being back here. This will be my seventh year with them and it’s good. A lot of familiar faces, a lot of guys I played with growing up and through my twenties and having success in Hershey, so it’s good to see them succeed and continue to grow and mature as players. It’s good to be back. It kind of feels like family here.”
Mink joined the Caps in 2001 as a member of their then-AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates, and played in 56 games with them after appearing in 29 games with the Caps’ ECHL affiliate in Richmond. Two more full seasons with Portland saw Mink total 57 goals over his first three seasons before he made his NHL debut with the Caps in February 2004. During the NHL lockout, Mink returned to Portland, where he had his best season to date with 39 points.
In 2005, the Hershey Bears became the Caps’ AHL affiliate and Mink’s then-career-high 40 points during the regular season and 21 points during the Calder Cup Playoffs led the Bears, coached by current Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau, to the Calder Cup. Mink then left for two years and joined the AHL’s Worcester Sharks before returning to Hershey to once again lead the Bears to another Calder Cup. In what seemed like déjà vu, Mink left the Bears after winning another championship for two years, the first with the Rochester Americans and the second with the Peoria Rivermen. This July, Mink signed with Hershey for the third time. In total, the 32-year-old Mink has no points in seven career NHL regular season games, but has 451 points in 638 AHL regular season games.
Though Mink may not have that much experience with the Caps themselves, he has seen from inside and outside the organization the transformation that has occurred within the last decade, one he believes isn’t over yet.
“On paper, it looks good, but that doesn’t mean anything, unfortunately,” Mink said about the moves that Washington made this summer. “They’ve got to do it. I think they did a great job in the offseason landing the players they did with the limited cap space that they had. It’s a testament to how hard they work in the front office and also to have players willing to take less money to come to this organization says a lot about how far it has come in the last seven or eight years. When I was first here, it definitely wasn’t like that, so it’s good to see they’ve turned a corner.”
Mink will return to Hershey this season, where he believes the expectations are once again high for a team with such an illustrious history. Several players taking part in training camp, including some that have made an impact with the Caps in recent years (Braden Holtby, Mathieu Perreault), could be on their way back to Hershey for the start of the season. Mink has done it all in the AHL, having won two championships as well as captaining an all-star team. He wants to use that experience to help coach the younger prospects as well as his fellow teammates and give them the advice they need to make it to the NHL.
“I want to help out as much as I can,” Mink said. “I’m going to be in Hershey and excited to be back there. I love playing there. It’s a great city. There’s going to be a lot of players that are in Hershey this year that are going to come up and help the Caps, so my goal is to help teach them and have them learn the game, learn what it’s like to be on a successful team and what’s expected to be a professional. I kind of look at it as an extension of the coaching staff a little bit as the veteran player as I think most veterans do. You want to bring these 22, 23, 24-year-olds and make their learning curve as steep as possible to get them to the next level as quickly as possible.”