As he worked through drills Thursday morning, Karl Alzner embraced the familiarity. He knew where he was supposed to be and what was expected of him.
It’s a new phenomenon for the Washington Capitals, who for the first time in four seasons will play the same brand of hockey in successive campaigns. There’s consistency in the coaching staff, most of the roster and how it all fits together.
“What a luxury that is. It feels great just to go out there and I remember everything that I’m supposed to do, so that’s kind of nice,” Alzner said after the first training camp practice in Arlington. “It makes for easier meetings and guys are a little more relaxed. Easier to go out there and just play the game, get in shape.”
With so many members of last year’s squad returning, only a few new faces will start from scratch learning Coach Adam Oates’s system. Players hope their overall awareness and understanding of how they will function as a group in Oates’s second season help them get off to a running start.
After opening the lockout-shortened season with a 2-8-1 stretch beforeclimbing out of the league basement to reach the postseason, the Capitals want to have the opposite showing out of the gate this time around. Being ahead of the curve with team chemistry and how to execute the game plan can’t hurt.
“There’s not too many new faces besides [free agent acquisition Mikhail] Grabovski, when he gets here,” Mike Green said. “It’s just important for us to jell quickly and get off to a good start this season and keep that tempo all year.”
Thanks to the lockout, this is Oates’s first chance to run a full training camp and work through a preseason schedule.
He has the benefit of having worked with most of the roster for 48 regular season and seven playoff games. Oates understands the players’ skill sets and personalities and how he can work with them. But there are challenges to working through the familiar.
“To not let them get stale,” Oates said when asked what his biggest hurdle is moving forward. “You get into the season, and it’s tough because practice you do the same things over and over. How do you find ways to make it so that they want to do it? . . . At the end of the day we always like to work on individual skills as well as a team; guys appreciate that because in a sense you’re trying to get better in the right way.”
Troy Brouwer said the Capitals have gone through “a little bit of chaos” in recent years when it came to players knowing their roles in the team. Rather than trying simply to understand the bare bones of a system, having one ingrained and constant allows for greater advancement and growth within it.
“We had three coaches in three years; we had new systems in every playoff,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s good that we just settle this system and work from there and learn to play better.”
While fostering improvement, the familiarity may also create more accountability. There won’t be an easy excuse to hide behind if things go awry when everyone is well versed in how a play should work.
“Last year, a lot of times we blamed a lot of things on that, saying we just didn’t understand or we weren’t quite prepared for that,” Alzner said. “It’s just good for us to keep everyone a little more honest, and if you’re not playing [well], you have no backup. You can’t say it’s the system’s fault.”