Washington Capitals Coach Ron Wilson vividly recalls the optimism of last year. His team was coming off the franchise's first trip to the Stanley Cup finals, brimming with potential, eager to build on that playoff run.
Then the injuries came, and continued to mount. The Capitals never recovered.
They became the first team in nearly 50 years to pull off the roller-coaster feat of missing the playoffs one season, reaching the finals the next season, then failing to qualify for the postseason again (the 1948-51 New York Rangers did it last). Washington finished the 1998-99 season with 68 points, its lowest full-season total since 1981-82.
Bad luck, inconsistent play and a whopping 511 man-games lost to injury conspired against them. But as players report to training camp at Piney Orchard today (and all doing so in good health), Wilson again finds reason for optimism, though with one pointed caveat.
"I was pretty excited at this time last year, too," Wilson said. "But we know to be as successful as we can be we have to be healthy. That is the key. I can't stress that enough. We have to be healthy. We made some big steps in that direction and overhauled our training staff, and we have to be healthy. Depth-wise, we're a little better than we were a year ago, but injuries just crippled us."
Healthy or not, the Capitals will benefit from playing in the league's weakest division. Carolina won the Southeast Division last season, but its best player, Keith Primeau, is involved in a contract dispute. Florida has a spotty defense but is banking on sniper Pavel Bure to lead the team to the playoffs. Tampa Bay should be improved, but has a long rebuilding process ahead. Atlanta is an expansion team. Winning the division, and attaining a top-three playoff seed in the process, is clearly the Capitals' goal.
"I think that's what everybody focuses on at the beginning of the year," General Manager George McPhee said. "Every team in the league wants to win the division, irrespective of the division they are in. We've got a good shot. That's all you want. All you want is to have a chance to win, and we do."
Said one NHL general manager: "Washington has every chance to win that division. You can't overstate how much the injuries set them back last year. They're probably the most talented team in that division. They might have the best defense in the conference. But you have to wonder if they can stay healthy."
The Capitals parted with longtime trainer Stan Wong over the summer and have a new medical staff. The changes were prompted, in large part, by the team's injury problems, specifically the recurrence of the same injuries to the same players. The team has averaged about 500 man-games lost each of the last few seasons; McPhee estimates 250 man-games lost to be the league average.
"This team has been ravaged by injuries the last three years," McPhee said. "With all the injuries, we've never seen how good this team can be."
With so many players out, the Capitals could not establish regular line combinations last season and players were often forced into new roles.
The health problems were especially detrimental to key youngsters such as Richard Zednik, 23, Yogi Svejkovsky, 22, and Jan Bulis, 21. All three forwards are considered potential franchise players, and all three missed considerable time last season with injuries.
"If all three of those guys play the way they are capable of playing, and the way we all know they can play, there's no question we're going to be in the playoffs," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "Zednik and Bulis, when they played together it was magical. And Yogi is a great talent, too. Those three have tremendous potential, and if Chris Simon is healthy all year and Steve Konowalchuk is healthy all year there's no reason to think we can't win the division."
It's likely camp will open without Zednik and Svejkovsky, both of whom are unrestricted free agents negotiating new contracts.
"In my mind, they should be there for the start of camp," McPhee said. "They aren't good enough at this stage in their career to miss any time in camp. We're essentially ready to go with the exception of those two players."
As for the Capitals' other young players, hopes are high for defenseman Alexei Tezikov, who was acquired late last season from Buffalo for Joe Juneau; Princeton University free agent forward Jeff Halpern, who is from Potomac; and forward Glen Metropolit, who finished in the top 10 in scoring in the International Hockey League last season.
They will compete for ice time now that longtime Capitals such as Dale Hunter, Kelly Miller and Mark Tinordi are no longer with the club.
The Capitals made few offseason additions and believe the biggest contributions will come from within the organization.
They did acquire right wing Ulf Dahlen, 32, who enjoyed a solid NHL career before playing last season in Sweden, as well as speedy penalty-killing winger Joe Sacco, 30, and backup goalie Craig Billington, considered among the top backups in the league.
Team officials also are expecting a big season from Sergei Gonchar, who quietly scored 21 goals, including 13 on the power play, in just 53 games last season -- a staggering rate for a defenseman. Center Andrei Nikolishin will be watched closely as well. He is entering his first full training camp in three years after contract disputes cut into his last two preseasons.
In fact, the Capitals are looking for improvement from everyone -- from perennial 40-goal scorer Peter Bondra, to Kolzig, to the fourth-line players.
Staying healthy is the first step.
"Over the last two years we've had the best of times and the worst of times, as a team and individually," Kolzig said. "There's probably no better way to end a long hot summer than by going into a cold arena and getting started. Everyone wants to erase the memories of last season."