The Washington Capitals begin their 39th season tonight and — finally — they will be part of a Stanley Cup victory celebration.
Of course, the Caps’ role will be as spectators, watching the Chicago Blackhawks raise the banner they earned last June by beating the Boston Bruins in the Cup finals.
Maybe the Caps will be inspired by being that close to a new championship banner.
Or, maybe — far more importantly — they have put together a better team than the one that lost in seven games to the New York Rangers in the opening round of last year’s playoffs. The key player on this team is the same guy who has been the key player since he arrived here in 2005: Alex Ovechkin. Last season represented a rebirth for Ovechkin. Moved to right wing by rookie Coach Adam Oates, he thrived, scoring 32 goals during the 48-game lockout-shortened regular season. Those numbers were good enough to win a third MVP award for Ovechkin. But, like his team, Ovechkin failed once again in the playoffs, producing only one goal (and two points) in the Rangers series.
“I really like where Ovi is right now,” General Manager George McPhee said on the eve of his 16th season in Washington. “He had a good camp and a good preseason. He feels good about himself and he’s confident. When Ovi is feeling good, we all feel good.”
If Ovechkin has another big season, the question will be whether the Caps can improve the team around him. Their goaltending should be solid with starter Braden Holtby and backup Michael Neuvirth. If both play well, McPhee might be tempted to use Neuvirth as a chip at the trade deadline.
“Ideally I’d like to improve the team from within as the season goes on,” McPhee said. “But if there’s a move to be made, we’ll make it. I really like what we’ve seen in camp. A few guys have surprised us. I’m normally not big on bringing teenagers up to the NHL, but a couple of these guys showed us too much for us not to have them here.”
The teenagers in question are Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick. Wilson won’t turn 20 until March and Carrick is a few weeks younger. Both were draft picks in 2012 — Wilson in the first round, Carrick in the fifth.
Wilson came into camp with a solid chance to make the team; Carrick didn’t. Both played too well for McPhee and Oates to keep them out of the lineup. The only question with Wilson was whether the Caps wanted to keep him in Washington to play limited minutes in the NHL or lots of minutes back in the Ontario Hockey League. Carrick has been the surprise of camp.
Wilson and Carrick will join another young player, 22-year-old pest Michael Latta, on the team, along with the team’s key free agent pickup, Mikhail Grabovski, who is expected to fill the void on the second line left by Mike Ribeiro’s departure. Grabovski’s numbers a year ago in Toronto (nine goals, 16 points) weren’t close to Ribeiro’s in Washington (13 goals, 49 points), but he is four years younger, and the Caps hope he can find the form that led to a 29-goal season three years ago.
To create both cap space and roster space, McPhee traded veteran center Mathieu Perreault to Anaheim on Sunday for a fourth-round draft pick and a minor leaguer. That set the roster at 23 players going into the opener.
McPhee is still hoping that 2010 first-round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov will be able to join the team from Russia in time for the playoffs. Whether that happens depends on how deep into the playoffs Kuznetsov’s team goes and the always quirky status of Russian players trying to make their way to the NHL.
In the end though, the Caps’ hopes for this season are tied most closely to two men: Ovechkin and Holtby. As experienced as he is, Holtby just turned 24 and, working with goalie coach Olaf Kolzig, has made some subtle changes in his style during the offseason that the Caps hope will keep him in and around his crease a little bit more as he faces shooters.
Which Ovechkin will turn up is always a bit of a mystery — especially during a season that includes the Olympics; even more so when those Olympics will be played in Russia.
The Russians were embarrassed four years ago, losing, 7-3, to Canada in the quarterfinals. McPhee and most people connected to the Caps back then firmly believed that defeat affected Ovechkin the rest of the 2010 season. Whether his diminished play the next two seasons had anything to do with the Olympics is hard to say, because there were also issues with both his coaches and all sorts of questions about his off-ice life and his conditioning.
Now he’s engaged, in shape, loves his coach and is getting ready to lead a team playing the Olympics in his home country. Where he will be physically and emotionally next April is anybody’s guess.
The regular season will be more difficult for the Caps because of realignment. They are now part of an eight-team division that includes the three New York teams, the Flyers and the Penguins. The NHL put 16 teams in the Eastern Conference (including Detroit) in re-alignment and only 14 in the west.
“It’ll be harder,” McPhee said. “But we’ll be playing our natural rivals which will be great. We tried to create rivalries with Tampa and Florida and Carolina and it really didn’t work. This will work for sure.”
In Washington, the regular season is usually about getting ready for the playoffs. The Caps have reached the postseason every year since 2008 but haven’t been to a conference final since 1998—the year they went to the Cup finals before being swept by the Red Wings. There are lots of little banners for division titles hanging in the rafters of Verizon Center.
The Caps will see a banner that matters in Chicago on Tuesday night. The challenge ahead is to try and get one of their own.