When was it that the pain of another second-round playoff exit started to wear off for the Washington Capitals?
“Probably up until I started seeing pictures on Instagram with the Stanley Cup,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I don’t know. I think all of us in the room thought that we were going to win that last year.”
The Capitals opened training camp Friday, and with the majority of last year’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning team returning, Washington is again expected to contend for a championship.
The organization addressed what it considered a weakness in the playoffs by bolstering its third and fourth lines with the additions of center Lars Eller and winger Brett Connolly. Washington is also hopeful that young stars such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt will take another step after an additional year of experience.
But after recording a franchise-record 56 regular season wins only to fall short in the playoffs again, what the Capitals have had to wonder often this summer is: What does the team do differently this season to avoid another disappointing postseason?
“I don’t really know if there’s anything you can change there,” Alzner said. “. . . I would like to crush everybody throughout the entire season. It’s awesome coming to the rink when you win. I wouldn’t want to change anything; I don’t think we need to change anything. I just think we need to beat the teams in the playoffs.”
Said Jay Beagle: “It’s something I’ve thought about a lot during the summer: how to peak at the right time, individually and as a team. . . . When you’re the best team in the league, you tend to let off the gas a little bit kind of towards the end of the season because you almost want to save it for playoffs. And I think what I’ve learned is that you have to kind of turn it up at that point. When your brain says, ‘I want to turn it down a little bit,’ and you kind of coast in and then ramp it up in playoffs, you can’t do that.”
Associate coach Todd Reirden said he spoke to the team Thursday night about the standard of the Capitals, that it’s an organization expected to be a contender every season. But with four players hitting unrestricted free agency and the veteran core of the team getting older, there will be even more pressure on Washington to advance to at least the Eastern Conference finals, a stage the team hasn’t reached since 1998, six years before star winger Alex Ovechkin was drafted. Considerable roster turnover is expected with T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik and Alzner scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next summer, and the Capitals are expected to lose a player to Las Vegas in the expansion draft.
“I think there’s pressure every year,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “Last year, we were a contender, and there was pressure. There’s the same pressure this year. We have a goal of winning a championship, and I think we know we’re close, and we need to pursue it. We’ll do everything we can to get there.”
With the majority of the roster returning, including seven defensemen from last season, any changes will be subtle. The main competition at training camp will be for a 14th forward spot. Beagle said the team has started working through new systems that have subtle tweaks, ones that Coach Barry Trotz alluded to this summer designed for Washington to play faster in a speedier NHL.
But as the Capitals prepare for another regular season, they know their season will be remembered for how it ends.
“You don’t want to be asking yourself why things didn’t go right,” Williams said. “You want to be asking yourself why it didn’t go wrong. You want to be asking yourself why it went right. We have a chip on our shoulder, and we have a point to prove to everybody.”