In previous summers, it was unusual to see more than a handful of players on the ice at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility with more than a week to go before the official start of the training camp. On Tuesday, though, a group of 15 that included Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, two of the team’s three highest-paid players, went through a workout that included rigorous, timed skating drills.
It’s not much to read into, but it’s the earliest on-ice example of the more focused tone that many within the organization have said is a necessity this season if the Capitals want to achieve greater success.
“It’s voluntary,” General Manager George McPhee said when asked about the number of players that returned early, “but we want to improve and we seem to have a group that’s really committed this year. We’re growing and learning as an organization.
“You sort of get through that phase with young players where they’ve quickly become stars, they’ve made money, they understand the lifestyle now. But if you want to win the [Stanley] Cup it takes even more. It’s about a team commitment.”
Following Washington’s second-consecutive premature exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, questions surfaced about what the roster lacked and whether a change in personnel, preparation or attitude was required.
While the team kept its coaching staff and nucleus of stars — among them Ovechkin, Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin — intact over the summer, McPhee brought in five new players: Jeff Halpern, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun. Each is known for his leadership and work ethic.
“What we’re really asking for is more maturity from a team that was basically a very, very young team to a team that now, where its young core is now in their mid-20s,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “They’re not 18, 19 years old. Maturity comes from realizing this, on paper is a really, really good team. You don’t have these opportunities all the time. To me that is what [players] are experiencing. When we don’t perform, they go, ‘We wasted a year.’ ”
Questions and speculation about the team’s core emerged this offseason. In mid-July, Ovechkin was shown in a video interview for the Capitals’ Web site in the team’s theater room, slouching and looking as though he had gained weight.
Ovechkin has attributed his appearance on the video to his posture and camera angle and explained on Tuesday that he did not change his offseason training routine and started it earlier than usual, on July 23. Ovechkin declined to elaborate on the changes he made to his workout program.
“I think right now I’m in better shape than I was last year and the year before,” Ovechkin said after announcing a new six-year equipment endorsement deal with Bauer. “My conditioning is much better. I feel pretty good.”
In August, former Capitals winger Matt Bradley, who now plays for the Florida Panthers, criticized Semin when asked about discipline problems on the team, questioning the Russian’s dedication. He also criticized what he described as a caste system on the club in which star players skipped practice, avoided criticism and still received ice-time even when their play was not up to par.
McPhee and Leonsis declined to comment on Bradley’s remarks, as did Ovechkin, who said, “We have been asked to not talk about it.”
Questions about the team as a whole will undoubtedly follow the Capitals throughout the season as Washington pushes to advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time during Ovechkin’s career.
But nine days ahead of training camp and a month before the start of the regular season, the Capitals’ response to the criticism seems most evident in the number of players on the ice at Kettler Iceplex. They were working out earlier and with more intensity than they have at this juncture in the past.
“I think when we said we have to be serious it means like you have to be ready for every game,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what position you are [in the standings]. If you’re first or second or eighth, you have to be ready for everything.”
Capitals notes: Washington terminated the contract of prospect Dmitry Kugryshev, who had two years remaining on his NHL deal. Kugryshev, a 2008 second-round draft pick who would have likely started the year in the ECHL, agreed to a two-year contract with CSKA Moscow in the KHL.
Staff writer Tarik El-Bashir contributed to this report.