“I’m not a grandpa, but yeah, times fly,” Ovechkin quipped Thursday. “ … That’s okay. I feel pretty good. I don’t feel the same like the last couple years.”
Ovechkin is the oldest player on the team with the departure of Brooks Orpik in the offseason and enters this season with multiple milestones in his sights.
“I feel good physically and mentally,” Ovechkin said. “This summer helps a lot, I think not only for me but the rest of the guys because you can see what happened last year, end of the year, we got in trouble.”
As multiple players discussed Thursday at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, an endless summer of traveling and celebrating the Stanley Cup in 2018 took a toll. Fatigue started to set in toward the end of the season, resulting in a first-round playoff exit to Carolina.
This year, after an extended summer, most players took advantage of the extra time, getting into town earlier, getting involved with more informal skates and working on additional training methods. This offseason was the team’s longest since the summer after the 2013-14 season, when the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
“I think with the age of our team, every year is a sense of urgency in my mind,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “It took us a while to get to the point where we did win a championship, and I don’t know how long our window is here. We’re getting a little older, but we also have some good young guys coming up, so I think we can continue to compete at a high level.”
While Ovechkin has two years remaining on his contract, Nicklas Backstrom, 31, and goaltender Braden Holtby, who turns 30 next week, are in the final season of theirs. MacLellan said the team has met with Holtby’s agent, and they will continue to talk. For Backstrom, MacLellan has not met with his agent, but hopes to do so in the ensuing days.
“Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success,” MacLellan said. “We’d love to keep both.”
Both players addressed their contract situations Thursday, echoing comments that they would like to stay in Washington. Holtby said he is hopeful something gets done long term, but his focus remains on playing his best hockey.
“Until something happens, there’s no use expending your energy on it, worrying about stuff like that,” Holtby said. “I’m in a great city here with a great team right now, so I might as well enjoy it and create something special.”
The team’s salary cap squeeze will force some tough roster choices before the Oct. 2 season opener in St. Louis. The Capitals are more than $1.3 million over the $81.5-million salary cap, and they almost certainly will make a trade or be forced to waive a player they would otherwise want to keep. However, the team is in no rush to make any moves.
“We’re going to try to play it out until the end,” MacLellan said. “If something makes sense in the meantime, I think we’d pursue it.”
Injuries could play a factor in that decision, with defenseman Michal Kempny not skating with the team to start training camp. Kempny, who is still recovering from a torn hamstring suffered in March, said there is no timetable for his return, but he is hoping to be ready for the season opener.
There is also the uncertainty with Evgeny Kuznetsov, who met Monday with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to talk about his positive cocaine test in May. If Kuznetsov is disciplined by the league, that could alter the roster makeup.
Nevertheless, the players have high hopes for a bounce-back season, with core components of the Stanley Cup-winning roster intact and additions ready to contribute.
“It is fun to kind of go out and feel like you have to prove something again,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “You know, before you were kind of on top and you are trying to stay there and just maintain it, and now we have to get better and improve on last year, so it is a different feeling coming in this year, and I think it will be good for us.”