The term “rebuilding” is sometimes looked upon as a dirty word in professional sports. Owners and management types are often reluctant to even use it, preferring to call it “retooling” or “changing on the fly” instead. But if you look at the teams in the NHL who have undertaken rebuilding projects and those who have not, you wonder why teams are loath to admit to rebuilding.
The last two Stanley Cup finalists – the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames – finally earned the right to compete for hockey’s most coveted and sought-after prize after years of rebuilding. Recent Cup champions New Jersey, Colorado, Detroit and Dallas all suffered through several fallow seasons before finally hoisting the Cup.
In the post-lockout NHL, the rebuilding process doesn’t need to take four or five seasons as it often did in eras past. In fact, because of the declining age of unrestricted free agency, it can’t. Rebuilding clubs simply can’t afford to take more than two or three seasons to get back to contention because if they do, they risk losing some of their core players to free agency.
“With free agency at 27, there is no guarantee that you are going to be able to keep some of those guys,” says Halpern, the team’s newly appointed captain. “The rebuilding process shouldn’t be as long as it has been in the past. We were a team, we had a good group of guys [but] up front we were missing a top guy and we were able to pick up Jeff Friesen. He instantly gives us the type of threat that we didn’t have. There might be one or two more pieces that we might need or pick up along the way but there is no reason that as a team we can’t do a lot of things. Our goal now as a team is to move forward and get into the playoffs and to win as many games as we can along the way.”
Bringing in a group of high-priced veteran free agents rarely worked for the Capitals or any other team in seasons past. With the unrestricted free agent age set at 31, signing teams were often paying players for past glories achieved with previous organizations. Team chemistry also tended to suffer as collections of egos tended to fracture locker room harmony.
The best way to build is from within and from the ground up. Cutting corners, partially rebuilding, rebuilding on the fly and never rebuilding rarely leads to a championship. While Capitals fans have had innumerable thrills over the last quarter-century, they have been denied the ultimate one, watching their team’s captain circling the ice with the Stanley Cup held aloft.
Time and experience will ultimately determine if the Caps’ current path will lead to that goal, but the players truly make up a team rather than a collection of individuals. They embody that hard-working, lunch-bucket mentality that permeated the old Capital Centre and endeared many of the team’s current core of fans to the club in the first place.
“I think you can tell that these guys are close because they’ve played together and now they’re moving up and are going to get a chance to play together in the NHL,” observes Cassels of the current Capitals. “I think they all want to do really well for one another and as a team they want to do well. Then you mix in some guys that have been here for a while like Jeff, Olie and Brendan. Then you bring in some newer guys, older veteran players to hopefully help them out. We really haven’t had much time to get together but it’s a very tight group in the dressing room and everyone wants to play for each other.
“I thought towards the end [of the preseason] when we did have our full team we did a lot of good things,” says Halpern, “even a lot of things that surprised even ourselves. At this point everyone feels good about what we are doing here and our team and the personnel. It is a good feeling moving forward to have a team that is this close-knit right off the bat. I think guys are pretty excited to see how we measure up right now around the league.”
So let the scribes dismiss the Capitals. Let them proclaim Washington as the worst team in the league. The Capitals believe they’re on the right track and no one can tell them differently. Furthermore, they believe their track might turn out to be the fast track.
“Each year is important, you don’t want to waste a year,” declares Halpern. “As a league we wasted a year last year. I remember Ulf Dahlen telling me my first couple of years, ‘You never know when you are going to have a better chance than the one you have.’ For us not to have winning in our minds and in our mindset is wrong. A team can gel at any moment. We have the pieces and maybe it’s down the road but hopefully it’s right away. It’s a process that we are able to be a team that we’re proud of and one that contend for the playoffs and a championship.”