It has been a few years since the Washington Capitals opened their annual training camp amidst this much hope and optimism. The commodtities of hope and optimism run rampant in 30 North American NHL camps at this time of year. The slate is clean and blank and everyone’s in first place. But this year’s optimistic outlook is different in the District. It’s more tangible and has more basis in reality.
It also carries with it higher expectations.
“We are really a lot more optimistic than we have been in the past,” says general manager George McPhee. “It’s not just about the free agents. Free agents create a buzz and the perception is nice but that doesn’t last. Reality lasts. We think we’re a good club now because we’ve developed players well and we have good players in key positions.
“It has taken a while to get here, there is still a lot of room to grow and we’re never finished building the club. But we’re pleased with how things have gone with all of our players.”
Many will focus on the offseason additions of free agents Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander and Tom Poti
as the reason why Washington has legitimate designs on making the playoffs this season. But that’s only part of the story, and it might not be the most significant part.
“I think the level of skill is higher,” declares coach Glen Hanlon. “We cannot be misled and think that [because] we’ve brought in three impact free agents that all of a sudden the whole complexion of your hockey team changes. The complexion of the hockey team changes because we have a lot of young players that are now starting to advance and progress and get comfortable in the league and their skills have developed. It’s the remaining 16 or 17 players that we feel have advanced to be able to be more of a team with higher skill.
“All expectations are fueled by assumptions. The assumptions are that our free agent players are going to play like impact players, our younger players are going to advance and the big assumption that we’re all sort of making here is that some of these young players – we need about two or three – [will] step from from third- and fourth-line players to step into top six forward and top four defensemen spots in numbers.”
Young defensemen Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina made great strides last season and enter camp among the team’s top four blueliners on paper. Other young rearguards like Steve Eminger, Mike Green
and Jeff Schultz
are among those the team is hoping can take another step forward in 2007-08. Karl Alzner
, the team’s first-round (fifth overall) draft choice in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, created some buzz in the recently concluded Super Series between Canada and Russia. Although he will celebrate his 19th birthday during the course of this camp, it’s not out of the question that Alzner could crack the opening night roster.
Washington has six defensemen in camp under the age of 25 who were first-round selections in the NHL Entry Draft.
“We really believe that some of those young defensemen made huge strides last year,” says McPhee. “And now they’re experienced defensemen. They played enough in this league that they know how to play and it’s time for them to be steady and reliable for us. We think they’re capable of doing it and if they do what we think they’re capable of, we’ll be fine.”
Morrisonn averaged 21 minutes a night last season. Although Washington compiled a dismal 5-13-5 record in its final 23 games of 2006-07, Morrisonn still managed to forge a plus-9 defensive rating over that stretch. Jurcina came over from Boston in a Feb. 1 trade, and skated at least 19:30 in each of his 30 games in a Capitals sweater. He was a plus-5 in those games.
Morrisonn and Jurcina were both drafted in 2001, Eminger in 2002 and Schultz and Green in 2004.
“I think confidence in a lot of the young guys,” says goaltender Olie Kolzig, when asked about how the Capitals have grown. “By being put in a situation where they’re given ice time and they’re given a lot of minutes maybe when they shouldn’t have been in that position, they’ve learned some good and some bad stuff. I think they’ve developed confidence, I think they know what they need to do during the summer to become stronger and better and play consistently at the NHL level.
“It’s like what Tampa did five, six years ago before they went on their Stanley Cup run. They had a group of young guys that they brought along, and they struggled for a couple of years. But eventually those young guys became very good. And as a group they became real good. They added key veterans each year until they finally had a team that won the Stanley Cup. I think that’s the model that we went after and our young guys have really come along.”
To a man, the Caps are appreciative of McPhee’s offseason efforts to improve the club. And to a man, they believe the rest of the burden lies on their own shoulders.
“It’s our job, we know it,” states team captain Chris Clark. “We have the resources. We have [a new, modern practice facility], we have everything we need to get there. It’s up to us. On paper right now, we should be a playoff team. We just have to get there as a team.”
Clark tasted playoff hockey more recently than many of his teammates, skating in the 2004 Stanley Cup finals as a member of the Calgary Flames.
“I haven’t been more excited for an opening game than I have been this year,” exudes Clark. “We had what we had the last couple years, rebuilding or whatever they wanted to call it. They put a lot of effort and a lot of money into the team this year and I think it’s our turn to step up and show that we’re a playoff team.”
Clark is not the only one who is anxious to get started and show what this team is made of.
“It’s been a long summer,” laments Kolzig. “Watching the playoffs again and not being a part of it, seeing the signings that we made in the summer and the uniform change, I think everybody was pretty anxious to get back here once July ended.”
“I can’t wait for the season to start,” says third-year left wing Alex Ovechkin
. “Five months in Russia are hard months. I’m tired of relaxing.”
Critical eyes will be focused on the defense during training camp and into the start of the season. Cutting the number of goals against is crucial for the Capitals if they are to make the playoffs for the first time in five years.
“There is no doubt we have to shave goals [against] off,” concedes McPhee. “You have to keep the puck out of your net. We really want to improve in that area but it comes from everyone. It’s not just the defensemen that you have on the ice, but it’s also the support that the defensemen get from the forwards. But when you’ve got the puck you can’t be scored on. Players like Nylander are really puck possession guys. I expect that with the players he will be playing with we will have the puck a lot. Kozlov is the same way. And some of the younger players that we have now – whether it’s [Alexander] Semin or a kid like [Tomas] Fleischmann – they’re good with the puck. They know what to do. If your overall game continues to improve, it should mean that you’re scoring a few more and giving up less.”
The last two seasons both produced 70-point clubs in Washington. But they also produced more important elements; namely a bond between players, a team culture founded upon conditioning, work ethic and unselfish play.
“There was no question that when we came out of the lockout we wanted a gritty team that could skate and that had real good people,” says McPhee. “Good men. I think we accomplished that. I think our fans were happy with what they saw that first year out of the lockout. We competed like heck, we finished checks and we brought pace to the game. We laid that as our foundation and the last couple of years we tried to add skill. Last year some of the players just weren’t ready but it looks as though they are now. You have to have a good mix of gritty, hard-working guys with skill guys. We’re hoping that this training camp will show that we’ve developed the right chemistry.”
Hanlon was asked whether he hoped his 2007-08 Capitals club would have more of an identity.
“I don’t want to say ‘more,’” he remarks, “I would like to say ‘different.’ There was a real identity to our hockey club. We worked hard every single night, we had a lot of character, we played unselfishly. But that as we all know isn’t enough to get yourself into the playoffs. But what that is, it’s two and a half years invested to get likely what I think is the hardest quality of a hockey team, and that is to play unselfishly and to play hard. Now with the players that we have, that hard work ethic is going to be in tune with a lot more of a skill level.”
On Friday, the Caps come together to begin a journey that will take them back to the playoffs and beyond. The team’s first training camp at its new practice facility figures to be entertaining and competitive.
“This will be the most competitive training camp in years, “ Hanlon begins, “I think going back even seven or eight years. There was such a pay structure and an imbalance sometimes that those players were guaranteed spots. I think when you take a look at the competitiveness it stems from having better players, more depth and some people here who have started to grow and we’re expecting to grow. We’ll see which of the younger kids can advance.”
Those younger kids’ ability to advance could hold the key to the Capitals advancing to the postseason.
“That’s why we play the game,” says Kolzig. “Last year at the same time we were talking about it. Our goal in the dressing room amongst the players was to make the playoffs. We gave ourselves a chance up until Christmastime. We succumbed to injuries and illness and we didn’t have the depth to recover from that.
“This year, they made some changes in the summer. They acquired some quality people and we’ve got that depth now. With the young talent we’ve had here the last three years, it’s time to make that next step. It’s time to put the pressure and the onus on the players. That’s part of professional sports. You don’t just come to the rink and get paid a nice salary just to go out there and sweat and put on a good show. Our goal ultimately here is to bring a championship to Washington.
“We can talk about making the playoffs, but I think at some point we’ve got to talk about winning the Stanley Cup. Really that’s the ultimate goal. The only way you can do that is by making the playoffs. Guys in the dressing room all know it. That’s our goal. Anything less is a disappointment.”