Capitals season preview: Challenge is for champs to avoid hangover
The Washington Capitals became kings of the NHL 118 days ago. The National Mall flooded with rabid, red-clad fans at the celebratory parade and rally 113 days ago.
With a summer of partying now in the rear-view mirror, the time for one more celebration has arrived: The Washington Capitals will raise their first Stanley Cup banner Wednesday night, then drop the puck on a new season.
Not much is different for the Capitals this year, apart from the head coach and the lack of a Cup on their mantle. The team’s challenge has changed from breaking Washington’s sports curse to avoiding a Stanley Cup hangover and going back-to-back.
“You don’t want to do too much and say too much. You just have to go out there and work hard and have success,” team captain and star goal-scorer Alex Ovechkin said at media day. “Last year, nobody believe in us and we won the Cup and everything happened. Right now, we just want to do the same.
“I hope you guys don’t believe in us again,” he cracked.
It will be hard to manufacture that doubt, which used to dog the franchise. A recent ESPN poll of NHL players, coaches and front-office executives found 29 of 51 respondents said Washington was the best team in the league. A Cup-sized target is on the Capitals’ backs.
But it will help their cause that they’re bringing back mostly the same team. Fan-favorite fourth-liner Jay Beagle and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer left Washington and had to be replaced, but the Capitals brought back the other 20 players who dressed for the clinching game of the Stanley Cup Final in June.
The biggest change took place behind the bench. Barry Trotz resigned 11 days after the Capitals won the Cup, when he and the front office disagreed on how much a contract extension ought to pay the coach. The organization soon promoted associate coach Todd Reirden, Trotz’s right-hand man who was being groomed to be an NHL coach. Trotz became head coach of the New York Islanders.
The Capitals’ had a busy training camp after their short summer, Reirden said.
“Training camp’s long for the players, and also for the coaches, with the number of players and just the obligations you have in terms of your prospects and sending players down and teaching systems to not only players but also to new coaching staffs,” Reirden said. “It’s been a busy time for us since we got started, and it’s all kind of coming to the end here and we’re getting ready to get after the regular season with our group.”
In addition to Ovechkin, top forwards like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are back, as well as defenseman John Carlson (who signed an 8-year contract to stay in town) and Stanley Cup heroes like Braden Holtby and Devante Smith-Pelly.
General manager Brian MacLellan said “there’s a comfort level” around the team, but he doesn’t expect stagnation.
“We have some young guys that we still expect to get to the next level,” MacLellan said. “We think (Jakub) Vrana, (Andre) Burakovsky and Wilson got another level they can get to. We expect the same out of Oshie, Backstrom, Ovi. I think Kuzy has another level he can get to, too.”
The Eastern Conference, which was already a ringer for the Capitals to survive in last year’s playoffs, has only gotten better. The Toronto Maple Leafs added star free agent center John Tavares to a stacked group of forwards. Some consider the Tampa Bay Lightning, whom Washington beat in a seven-game conference finals, the NHL’s best team top to bottom.
And there’s always the Capitals’ archrival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the previous two Stanley Cups before Washington broke their streak.
The Capitals will host the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night for the season opener. The game will start a bit after 7:30, but preceding that is the long-anticipated banner-raising ceremony at 7:15. The city has arranged another “watch party” outside Capital One Arena, akin to those where fans congregated during the Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Capitals were playing on the road.
The last 10 teams to win the Stanley Cup are a combined 3-6-1 the night they hang their banners the following year. That possibility for a hangover of sorts is real, but it’s also avoidable.
“Instead of enjoying it too much I think you got to take it as a pump-up thing before the game,” Backstrom, an alternate captain, said Tuesday. “You got to bring this energy out to the game. Maybe it’s easier said than done, but at the same time I think we’re a great team and we know we have a game right after. So hopefully we can just bring that energy out to the game.”
“Tomorrow is gonna close out a fantastic last year,” Oshie said. “Once that banner goes up, I think it’ll be nice closure for everyone that what happened was real, and we can start focusing on the future and trying to do this thing again.”
The Capitals will have the standard 23 players on their roster opening night, but Tom Wilson faces a likely suspension, which will be decided after he has a hearing Wednesday. Wilson counts against the roster if he is suspended, so the Capitals claimed winger Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers Tuesday for forward depth. Defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler was assigned to the AHL Hershey Bears to make room.
Forward Travis Boyd (lower-body injury) will start on long-term injured reserve and miss at least 10 games, and blueliner Michal Kempny (upper-body injury) will start on standard injured reserve.
Tom Wilson (likely suspension)