The hardest test of Washington Capitals training camp arrives at the end of the first day, conducted on ice still sliced up from practice, hardly ideal conditions for a speed skate. It begins with a blasted whistle and a clicked stopwatch. Thirty-eight seconds for the first run — down and back, down and back, finish at center ice — and 41 seconds for the next two, two more awaiting those who missed the mark.
“It’s pretty fun,” defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Seriously? All those practice trials conducted over the summer while preparing for a new hockey season, even though they never could quite mimic the real thing? All the panting and wheezing, bent over at the waist, no more energy left to spend? All that after Coach Barry Trotz already conducted a grueling first practice, aiming to make what followed even more difficult?
“I don’t know, because when you’re done, you’re happy. You can go and get a doughnut or something,” Alzner said.
This time last September, when the Capitals opened their first training camp under Trotz, curiosity about what the new coach would bring was quickly answered by fast drills, barked instructions and, of course, the on-ice conditioning test, which held them to higher standards than many had previously experienced. To those who struggled, Trotz advised them to fight through it. After all, everything was new.
On Friday morning, when the first group steps onto the rink at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for the debut session, the learning curve will be gone. With Trotz on the bench, Washington finished second in the Metropolitan Division, advancing into the Eastern Conference semifinals before exiting in a painfully familiar fashion — to the New York Rangers in seven games. Free agency forced some attrition — Joel Ward to San Jose, Eric Fehr to Pittsburgh, Mike Green to Detroit — but aside from bringing aboard T.J. Oshie via trade and Justin Williams on a two-year deal, the Capitals’ core returns knowing exactly what a Trotz-run camp promises.
“Having a year under your belt, knowing what he expects and what he demands, I wouldn’t say it makes it physically any easier, but mentally you at least know what’s coming,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, a new addition last summer along with Trotz. “I guess, I don’t know how to say it. . . . It’s nice being prepared for it at least.”
The general structure of this preseason — off-ice testing in the weight room Thursday, on-ice groups named after Capitals legends, time built in daily for video meetings — isn’t much different in structure from Trotz’s first tour. The expectations, though, will be higher, both from prognosticators tabbing Washington as an early Stanley Cup contender and inside a dressing room that last reached the conference finals in 1997-98.
Adding Oshie and Williams fortified the top six, a stated aim of General Manager Brian MacLellan before free agency began. Youngsters such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson and Nate Schmidt will be counted upon to fill bigger roles and produce accordingly. Goaltender Braden Holtby, the recipient of a five-year, $30.5 million extension, now has a fourth-place Vezina Trophy finish to his name, as well as partial stake in several single-season franchise records. After a dozen games last season, Washington’s record stood at 4-5-3. This time, a loaded Metropolitan Division will afford little room for such slow starts, the players said.
“It’s all about setting the tone right away,” Alzner said. “What the coaches talk about all the time is habits. If you come into camp and you start by not working hard, you’re not going to have good habits. I expect it’ll be hard work. They always do a good job of making sure we mesh together well and do things as a team. We know a little bit more what to expect, so I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed, but not to the point that you take your foot off the gas.”
Uncertainties still loom over the preseason, such as the health of Orpik (wrist) and center Nicklas Backstrom (hip) after summer surgeries, or how Trotz will fill depth vacancies at both forward and defense. But those are minor issues, left to play out until the season opener Oct. 10, through seven preseason games and almost three weeks of camp, starting with the whistle, the stopwatch and maybe even the thought of doughnuts.
“You know it’s going to be one of the harder days because it’s that transition,” forward Jay Beagle said. “You can try as hard as you can to get ready for it in the summer and skate as many times as you can, do the skate test a couple times, and that first intensity’s all ramped up. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. I can’t wait to get back into it, because you can only do the shinny hockey and the running your own drills, from players, not that much structure, for so long. We want to play. We want to get back into it.
“It’s real. It’s here. You always feel that when you get here. Summer’s over.”