Maybe the Caps will be inspired by being that close to a new championship banner.
Or, maybe — far more importantly — they have put together a better team than the one that lost in seven games to the New York Rangers in the opening round of last year’s playoffs. The key player on this team is the same guy who has been the key player since he arrived here in 2005: Alex Ovechkin. Last season represented a rebirth for Ovechkin. Moved to right wing by rookie Coach Adam Oates, he thrived, scoring 32 goals during the 48-game lockout-shortened regular season. Those numbers were good enough to win a third MVP award for Ovechkin. But, like his team, Ovechkin failed once again in the playoffs, producing only one goal (and two points) in the Rangers series.
“I really like where Ovi is right now,” General Manager George McPhee said on the eve of his 16th season in Washington. “He had a good camp and a good preseason. He feels good about himself and he’s confident. When Ovi is feeling good, we all feel good.”
If Ovechkin has another big season, the question will be whether the Caps can improve the team around him. Their goaltending should be solid with starter Braden Holtby and backup Michael Neuvirth. If both play well, McPhee might be tempted to use Neuvirth as a chip at the trade deadline.
“Ideally I’d like to improve the team from within as the season goes on,” McPhee said. “But if there’s a move to be made, we’ll make it. I really like what we’ve seen in camp. A few guys have surprised us. I’m normally not big on bringing teenagers up to the NHL, but a couple of these guys showed us too much for us not to have them here.”
The teenagers in question are Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick. Wilson won’t turn 20 until March and Carrick is a few weeks younger. Both were draft picks in 2012 — Wilson in the first round, Carrick in the fifth.
Wilson came into camp with a solid chance to make the team; Carrick didn’t. Both played too well for McPhee and Oates to keep them out of the lineup. The only question with Wilson was whether the Caps wanted to keep him in Washington to play limited minutes in the NHL or lots of minutes back in the Ontario Hockey League. Carrick has been the surprise of camp.
Wilson and Carrick will join another young player, 22-year-old pest Michael Latta, on the team, along with the team’s key free agent pickup, Mikhail Grabovski, who is expected to fill the void on the second line left by Mike Ribeiro’s departure. Grabovski’s numbers a year ago in Toronto (nine goals, 16 points) weren’t close to Ribeiro’s in Washington (13 goals, 49 points), but he is four years younger, and the Caps hope he can find the form that led to a 29-goal season three years ago.
To create both cap space and roster space, McPhee traded veteran center Mathieu Perreault to Anaheim on Sunday for a fourth-round draft pick and a minor leaguer. That set the roster at 23 players going into the opener.