Nearly two years ago, the Washington Capitals started the 2003-04 season off in fine fashion. They downed the New York Islanders by a 6-1 score at MCI Center, giving a packed house a hopeful glimpse of the season that stretched ahead. Peter Bondra scored twice. Jaromir Jagr, John Gruden, Mike Grier and Jeff Halpern also scored. Olie Kolzig needed to make only 17 saves.
But it turned out to be false promise. It took the Caps more than three weeks to record their second win of the season and the team was never within reach of .500 the rest of the way. A star- studded cast underachieved, a coach was fired and a new one hired, and midway through the campaign a decision was made to rebuild the team virtually from the ground upward. That’s where the Caps stand today, as they prepare to open the 2005-06 season.
Of the players who dressed for Washington’s last regular season game on Apr. 4, 2004, only six – goaltender Olie Kolzig, defensemen Brendan Witt and forwards Jeff Halpern, Stephen Peat, Matt Pettinger and Brian Willsie – figured to suit up for the 2005-06 opener. As is usually the case with a rebuilding team, the hockey scribes of North America have roundly dismissed the Capitals’ chances to escape the cellar this season.
“My philosophy is that every type of situation or media, you use it or it uses you,” says coach Glen Hanlon. “That is how I approach everything. Anyone who writes us off, we don’t avoid it and we don’t hide it. We use it. We’ll put it in our face every day, if that’s what it takes.
“When you are together as a group much as we are, you are always looking for angles. From a coaching standpoint, I like young players. I love teaching. Our coaching staff is [comprised of] all teachers and we are excited about having this group. Every year there are surprises. The last three [Stanley Cup] finalists have been Carolina, Anaheim and Calgary. I’m not saying that is our expectation, but there are some huge surprises every year. If everyone picks us to be last, then we’re going to have to do something that is going to surprise people.”
It has been a quarter-century since the Capitals entered an NHL season clearly in a rebuilding mode. Throughout that span the Capitals iced several great teams that featured a handful of future Hall of Famers. They were able to forge many fine regular season performances but almost always fell short at playoff time, for a variety of reasons. The team finally reached the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 1998, but was swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
A slow and aging Capitals team suffered a slew of injuries the following season and was never in contention. Some thought was given to rebuilding after the disappointing 1998-99 season, but management and ownership opted instead to continue on the same course, adding veterans to a veteran team. Two successive division titles resulted, but two first-round playoff exits followed.
With an overpriced and underachieving team of veterans languishing in last place throughout 2003-04 and a lengthy work stoppage seemingly on the horizon, the Capitals made the painful choice to rebuild their club around size, speed and youthful enthusiasm. Some of the fruits of that endeavor will be on the ice Wednesday night when the Capitals embark on a new season and a new era, taking on the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2005-06 season opener. Some of the other fruits of that endeavor are still on the vine, skating two hours north of Washington for the team’s Hershey Bears farm team in the American Hockey League.
This year’s Capitals are the starting point in a process the team believes will lead to the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s history. The Caps have amassed a talented group of young players who will form the nucleus of the next great Capitals teams. This season is about installing systems, instilling work ethic, building chemistry and camaraderie, and determining which players fit into the team concept going forward. Past teams were often more a collection of individuals than a “team;” that won’t be a problem going forward. more...