A week after the two sides reached a deal to end hockey’s latest labor dispute, the real work begins for NHL coaches and players.
The NHL’s Board of Governors and the NHL Players Association’s 740 members have ratified the new collective bargaining agreement and on Saturday the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding that formally ended the lockout and allowed the league to get back to business as usual.
The Washington Capitals will open training camp Sunday morning at their practice facility in Arlington with only six days to prepare before they dive into a compressed 48-game season. It’s a race to get everyone versed in new Coach Adam Oates’s system, re-establish chemistry and ensure that Washington is prepared for the frenetic, high-stakes pace that awaits when it kicks off the season Saturday at Tampa Bay.
“There are going to be a lot of unknowns here. No one knows what this is going to look like — who’s in shape, who’s not, who gets out to a fast start, who doesn’t,” General Manager George McPhee said this past week. “It’s going to be like 48 playoff games but really unpredictable. We don’t know how people are going to play, and I guess that’s what’s going to make it exciting.”
The Capitals, whose home opener will be Jan. 22 against Winnipeg, will play 48 games in 99 days. They will play an unbalanced schedule within the Southeast Division, facing Tampa Bay and Florida each four times and opposing Winnipeg and Carolina each five times, with three games on the road against the Jets and three at home against the Hurricanes.
They will play each of the 10 other teams in the Eastern Conference three times. Washington will host Boston, New Jersey, Buffalo, Toronto and the New York Islanders at Verizon Center twice during the season series, while they will play two of three games on the road against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Montreal, Ottawa and the New York Rangers.
The schedule will include eight sets of back-to-back contests and beginning in early March, Washington will play 17 games — including five sets of back-to-backs — in 30 days. Given that 13 of the players under contract heading into the season haven’t played a game in eight months, the highly concentrated schedule makes injuries a concern. But the Capitals aren’t terribly worried about those possibilities.
“It would seem logically that without rest, injuries are going to happen, but you never know,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “It’s always a possibility, but I played college hockey too; we only played two games a week and we had injuries all the time. It all depends.”
Similarly, goaltender Braden Holtby played several games in a row every week in the American Hockey League during the lockout and dismissed any concern about the busy schedule.
“We played three-in-threes in the AHL,”Holtby said, “So it’ll be a little bit of a break for guys, I guess.”
With so few games, a slow stretch at any point could spell doom for a team’s playoff hopes, and the compacted nature of the schedule means the Capitals will need to address systematic concerns and any bad habits quickly, whenever they might occur.
They will need a healthy sense of urgency throughout the 99-day regular season and a mental approach to match. There will be less opportunity for teams that fall behind early in the season to claw their way back into the postseason picture, as the Capitals did last year.
“If we would have had the same mind-set we had last year we’d probably be in quite a bit of trouble because it was always, ‘We’ll get better next game, we’ll get better next game.’ We kind of just waited for it to happen and it didn’t happen until six games left in the season,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “If we do that we’re going to be in trouble. It’s more go-go-go, don’t save anything. If you have an issue you’ve got to fix it right away, don’t just wait for the next game.”
During the lockout, Oates and assistant coaches Calle Johansson and Tim Hunter planned for an abbreviated training camp and a sprint of a regular season. They weighed how much time to devote to on-ice workouts as opposed to video sessions during training camp and how much new system material to throw at players without risking confusion.
What should help is the fact that all three members of the coaching staff played through the only other 48-game season in NHL history, in 1995. They know what it’s like to ramp up for important games on short notice and have no room for error to reach the playoffs.
“I don’t think anybody has a perfect formula,” Oates said. “We’re trying to think of everything we can to make it right and make sure the guys play their best in a short span of time.
“I don’t really view it as a camp. I mean, we’re playing hockey,” he continued. “We got a game in a week. That’s not a training camp. There’s not an exhibition game. So to me, it’s more like it’s the middle of the year when you had a five-day break and you gotta play.”