By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
For the past four seasons, the world's best hockey player has performed in Washington. As a member of the Capitals, Alex Ovechkin has won a scoring title, led the National Hockey League in goals twice and been named MVP two years in a row.
The prize he's expected to deliver, though, has so far eluded him.
This could be the year that changes. Surrounded by the best supporting cast since his arrival, and likely the most talented lineup in the franchise's 36-year history, expectations have never been so high for the gregarious 24-year-old Russian or the Capitals.
"To date," defenseman Brian Pothier said, "this is our best team. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. If we don't win the Stanley Cup -- I think if you ask anyone in this room -- the season will be a disappointment."
Pothier isn't the only Capital sensing that urgency as the season opens Thursday in Boston.
"Get Ready. It's Our Time," is the slogan printed on team-issued T-shirts, with a Stanley Cup emblazoned between the sentences. It might be bold, but perhaps not so far from the truth.
Ovechkin knows he'll be under contract for the next 11 seasons after this one. But when he looks around the locker room at the team's Arlington practice facility, the future of some of the key players around him is far less certain.
Goaltender Jos? Theodore, defensemen Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina and forwards David Steckel and Brendan Morrison all will be unrestricted free agents next summer. Meantime, emerging stars Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin will be restricted free agents seeking lucrative, multiyear contracts. It could prove difficult to keep both young stars without sacrificing in other areas.
"With the salary cap, there are only certain points during a 10-year period where you can make a legitimate run, and this one of them," team captain Chris Clark said. "It's possible we're not going to have this team next year, or the year after. We're good. We're good now. We need to perform that way."
The Capitals didn't get good overnight. The roster is the result of a risky process that began during the 2003-04 season, when, after another veteran-laden team got off to a rotten start, ownership decided to blow it up and start over.
Piece by piece, General Manager George McPhee dismantled the high-priced, underachieving Capitals, trading away stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar, Peter Bondra and Robert Lang for prospects and draft picks.
Jagr's albatross of a contract was shipped to the New York Rangers; Bondra was sent to Ottawa for Brooks Laich; Gonchar was dealt to Boston for Shaone Morrisonn and the pick that became Jeff Schultz; and Lang was jettisoned to Detroit for Tomas Fleischmann and the pick that was used to select defenseman Mike Green.
The Capitals plummeted to 28th place out of 30 teams that season. They won the draft lottery and, more important, the right to select Ovechkin in June 2004. But the next season was scuttled by a lockout, so Washington had to wait to get its first look at the player who would someday change the franchise's course.
It didn't take long for Ovechkin to endear himself to the smattering of fans who returned after the sell-off and season-long shutdown. He scored 52 times as a rookie, including one of the most replayed goals of all time in Phoenix in January 2006, when he slipped the puck into the net while sliding on his back.
Ovechkin had burst onto the scene. His team, however, was still several years away. The youthful Capitals earned only 70 points in 2005-06. But another difficult season yielded another top pick, and Backstrom, one of the slickest passers in the game, was drafted fourth overall in 2006.
The foundation had been laid, but the hardest part for owner Ted Leonsis and McPhee -- sticking to the plan through all the losing -- was still ahead. The franchise endured another 70-point season in 2006-07.
After spending a year in Sweden, Backstrom entered the fold the following season. But after a disastrous 6-14-1 start and growing discontent among the team's most loyal fans, Glen Hanlon was fired on Thanksgiving and replaced by Bruce Boudreau, the organization's American Hockey League coach.
What seemed like little more than a desperate move actually proved to be the turning point. Boudreau quickly connected with the young players, many of whom he coached on the Hershey Bears. He brought with him a style of play that accentuated the Capitals' speed and skill, and the results were instantaneous. The team went 37-17-7 the rest of the way and earned the franchise's first playoff berth in five years.
Ovechkin's first trip to the postseason didn't last long; the Capitals were bounced in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals by the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games. But the rebuild was complete.
"When we tore it down, ownership and I believed we could get to be a good team by Year Four," McPhee said. "We got to be a good team by Year Three. You can't say, well, we're going to build a year and this is when we're going to compete for the Cup. But you hope like heck that you can build a good team and make it better and better and punch through a couple of times and have the ultimate success."
Year Four saw the Capitals finish second in the conference, set a franchise record for points with 108 and advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1998. But after winning the first two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they lost four of the next five as injuries and inexperience in goal caught up to them.
"A lot has to go right" in the playoffs, McPhee said. "It almost has to go perfect."
The Capitals bowed out meekly to the eventual Stanley Cup champions with a blowout loss at Verizon Center in Game 7.
In an effort to add more balance to a lineup that was long on skill and short on grit, this summer the Capitals parted ways with Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and enforcer Donald Brashear and signed free-agent forwards Morrison and Mike Knuble, who is expected to be the rugged goal-scorer in front of the net that the Capitals lacked last season.
Ovechkin said he was pleased with the moves, but he was careful not to make any guarantees.
"You can't say that we're going to win it," Ovechkin said. "We have to fight for it. It's going to be tough, but it's going to be fun. It will take all the guys, not only one player, all players. Everybody in this group; it's not just me that wins the games."
It's easy for players such as Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green -- each of whom is 25 or younger -- to believe that they'll always be on a team picked to contend. Clark knows not that might be the case. Like other veterans on the Capitals, he's feeling pressure of a different sort.
At 33, he knows all too well that chances to win a championship don't come around often. Clark was a member of the 2003-04 Calgary Flames team that advanced to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals only to fall by one goal to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I can still barely watch a finals, even another sport's finals," said Clark, who was a key member of the Capitals through the lean years coming out of the lockout. "It drives me nuts. I can't do it. They're having so much fun. We were that close to doing it last year. Every year that ticks by is another year lost.
"It took time to build up to this," he added. "Especially the way we did it, which was building from within and with youth. It took a lot of patience from the players, fans and management to stick to that."
It took years to get to this point. But, as the brash slogan on the gray T-shirt implies, the Capitals' time has come.
"It's right," Ovechkin said. "It is our time. It has to be our time."