A few days before their season started, with one national expert after another predicting a deep playoff run, the Capitals gathered for a luncheon with local media members. That afternoon, no fewer than three significant figures in the organization asked me the same question: What’s going on with the Nats?
That the hockey team would be so in tune with the baseball club’s stunning disappointment is an encouraging sign. Like the 2015 Nats, these Capitals are coming off a bounce-back campaign that ended in the playoffs. Like the 2015 Nats, these Caps are led by a second-year coach who earned widespread plaudits for his debut season. Like the Nats, these Caps made a stunning offseason acquisition (Max Scherzer, meet T.J. Oshie) and then became the trendy pick to win a title — eight of 28 analysts surveyed by ESPN.com, NHL.com, Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports picked Washington to win its first Stanley Cup next spring, with several more predicting a finals loss.
The similarities even get freakily specific. Both teams entered the season with injury concerns hanging over their second-best player: Anthony Rendon for the Nats and Nicklas Backstrom for the Caps.
Here’s one major difference: You haven’t heard any Caps players ask “where’s my ring?” or describe themselves as the team to beat in their division. You won’t, either. And if you thought the Caps would display Matt-Williamsesque patience through any early-season struggles, Barry Trotz’s response to Tuesday’s 5-0 shellacking should end that notion. The team finished a shorter-than-expected Wednesday workout, and then exited the ice in unison.
“I think the message was more important than shooting some extra pucks today,” Trotz said after the session. “The message was we haven’t been our best, and we’re 1-1, and we could be in a worse situation than we are. But we can repair it. We just know that we’ve got to play a better team game. We’ve got to play better as a group. The way we’re playing, we’re not going to be very successful.”
That’s quite a response after just two games, and it wasn’t Trotz’s only message of the week. There was also his decision to bench Alex Ovechkin, Washington captain and three-time MVP, after Ovechkin apparently overslept and missed Tuesday’s morning skate. Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan talk almost obsessively about their mission last season to repair the little things: practice habits, off-ice workout habits, the organizational culture. Add “showing up to the rink on time” to the list.
And so Trotz dinged Ovechkin, in the most matter-of-fact way you can bench a three-time MVP. First came Tuesday’s “personal reasons” explanation; “we tried to make a not big deal of it [Tuesday], because it was a game day,” the coach said. Then came Ovechkin’s Wednesday confession to reporters: “I just messed up with my alarm clock, put 8:30 p.m. not a.m.,” he said. “So I fall asleep, and make mistake, and that’s why.”
Ovechkin managed to smile throughout much of his mea culpa, and fans largely seemed willing to shrug off this episode. It’s one thing when a goofy rookie tight end like Fred Davis snoozes through practice; the best hockey player in franchise history gets a bit more leeway. Yes, you’d rather this incident didn’t involve the veteran captain with a reputation for enjoying life, but Ovechkin has missed 12 games over five seasons despite playing like an adolescent high on Marshmallow Fluff. Leave the hyperventilating to loud-suited Canadians.
The bigger takeaway, though, is that Trotz is unwilling to treat October as some preamble to the “real” part of the season; that he isn’t comfortable assuming a powerhouse team will inevitably emerge. We all spent four months convinced that the Nationals were on the verge of coming together; in the end, we were treated only to Jonathan Papelbon’s fingers coming together around Bryce Harper’s throat.
And if the Caps need a reminder that success isn’t a given, they can ask one of their other new additions. Justin Williams won a Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2014; the next year, they became the first defending champs in eight years to miss the playoffs.
“Being good on paper and being good on the ice are two different things,” Williams said. “The hardest part is just getting into the playoffs. A lot of great teams don’t make the playoffs — a lot of great teams in this league. I was on one of them last year.”
The Caps started slowly last year, winning just 10 of their first 24 games. They had an obvious excuse — new coach, new system — and the panic level remained low. Still, they entered this season intent on not repeating that start, aware that the expectations have significantly changed, that they’ll no longer receive what defenseman Matt Niskanen referred to as “a free pass.”
“We expect to be ahead of where we were at the beginning of last year,” Niskanen said last week. “A good start, that’s one of the goals.”
The ideal start likely didn’t include a 5-0 skunking at home, with Ovechkin and Backstrom watching together in street clothes. But this week has made a few things clear. Despite the revamped expectations, Trotz hasn’t changed last year’s mission: “We’ve done a lot of things from a cultural standpoint that makes this team very accountable to each other, and that’s why it’s very important that certain things apply to everybody,” he said on Wednesday. And the franchise isn’t likely to remain passive during a slow start, even in an 82-game marathon.
Which is why the past few days might serve as an appropriate — wait for it — c’mon, you know I had to — this is gonna be so great — wake-up call.