Another Kick at the Can (Cup)
Caps bring high hopes and expectations to the ice in 2008-09
That success propelled the Caps to a Southeast Division title and their first playoff berth in five years. Washington was ousted in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs after a hard-fought seven-game series with the Philadelphia Flyers, but largely the same group of Capitals will set out to take care of unfinished business when the 2008-09 season begins on Friday in Atlanta.
With less personnel turnover than ever before in franchise history, the mission of the 2008-09 Caps is simply to pick up where they left off when the ’07-08 regular season ended last April 5.
Only one player – goaltender Jose Theodore – on this season’s opening night roster was not with the team at the conclusion of last season. Only two – Theodore and center Sergei Fedorov – were not with the team when it opened last season in Atlanta. Continuity like that from one
“We felt like we owed it to these players to keep this group together,” says Capitals general manager George McPhee, “and we did the very best we could. They made history last year with the run that they had and that was a great experience. But we also lost a game seven in overtime, and that’s a bitter way to lose.
“We felt that if we could bring them back and they could push through and have more success and learn from that tough loss, that there’s no limitation on what we can do. We kept them together, we’ve had a great camp and we’re healthy going into the season. We look forward to making the playoffs and taking another crack at it.”
Coincidentally, the Caps open in Atlanta again. This time, expectations are higher. Anticipation is greater. For the first time in several seasons, the Caps have a team that can be considered one of the best in the Eastern Conference.
Although there are few new faces around the locker room, there are reasons to believe that Washington will be a better team this season. Here are a few of them, in no particular order.
1. Boudreau will be behind the bench for the entire season.
The Caps improved offensively, defensively and on special teams during Boudreau’s 61 games behind the Washington bench last season. The Caps put up standings points at a pace that would have resulted in 109 points over a full season with Boudreau behind the bench. Being able to play his brand of hockey for an entire 82-game schedule could enable the Caps to threaten the franchise standard of 107 points in a season, established in 1985-86.
“Like I tell everybody, yeah, we want to score goals,” says Boudreau. “But when we don’t have the puck we also want to defend and get the puck back. I think we were tops in the league defensively in the last 20 games last year. People look at us thinking that we’re an offensive team because we have Alex [Ovechkin]. But I think we’re a pressure defense team that wants to force turnovers to become offensive. We’re defending and attacking at the same time, I think.
“Knowing these guys, I’ve felt very comfortable. And I think they feel very comfortable about me coming in and knowing what I demand and what I expect of them.”
2. The defense is young, but it’s still got upside.
The Caps were among the league’s stingiest defensive teams over the final third of the 2007-08 season. The same blueline corps returns for 2008-09, with 31-year-old Tom Poti as the oldest and most experienced (665 NHL games) member of the rearguard corps. With promising youngsters Karl Alzner (20), Sami Lepisto (24) and Josh Godfrey (20) in the pipeline, the blueline could get greener still later this season and beyond.
“You’re 31 years old and you wouldn’t think you’d be the oldest guy on the back end, but that’s the reality of it,” says Poti. “We’ve got some young guys, but they’re guys that can play.”
3. Fedorov for a whole season.
Fedorov is one of the game’s all-time greats, and he has played for three Stanley Cup winners. He brings a presence to the room and there is very little he has not seen in his years in the game.
“He’s been a tremendous influence on our team,” says Boudreau, “and not just the Russian guys. He’s been a calming influence and yet at the same time he gets more excited or as excited as anybody on the bench when we succeed. You get a Hart Trophy winner and a three-time Stanley Cup champion doing that and it’s pretty impressive. He talks to individuals and he’s helping guys on face-offs. He’s like another coach out there.”
The Caps’ kids got some valuable on-the-job training last season, and it included a tough playoff setback. They’re determined to learn from the experience and move deeper into the playoffs in 2009.
“I think the young players have gotten better,” observes Boudreau, “mainly because they’ve got a year of experience under their belt, which is a huge thing. I think they’ve developed because they have confidence that I have confidence in them. That makes a big difference. Mike Green and Nick Backstrom, they know they’re no longer first-year NHLers looking to get their feet wet. They’re guys now who are dependable guys that can come and talk to me and we can go over stuff all the time. [David] Steckel and [Tomas] Fleischmann, again, they’re no longer first-year guys. These guys have developed playing 70 games [in the league] and instead of thinking, ‘Jeez, I’ve got to play real good to be in the NHL,’ they’re NHL guys now and they know what they have to do to stay NHL guys.”
Washington has several players stocked at AHL Hershey who could likely play in the league right now on some other teams. Washington reassigned Alzner, Chris Bourque and Quintin Laing to AHL Hershey just prior to the start of the season. Alzner and Bourque played well enough in the preseason to make the team, and Laing spent half of the 2007-08 campaign in Washington.
“Those were the most difficult cuts we’ve had to make here,” admits McPhee. “I think it suggests that we’ve got a pretty good team now and we’re deep. And we’ve got three players – Alzner, Bourque and Quintin Laing – who can play in the NHL but we don’t have room for right now. On one hand, it says good things about the organization. On the other hand, it was really tough to cut them. They’re good players and they’re really good people, which is what’s most important. With that being said, these deadlines, they’re not artificial, they’re real. But things can change tomorrow or next week. For example we sent Jeff Schultz down last year for one game and brought him back. So a lot can happen and they’re certainly aware of that. We told them we expect to see them back here this year.”
Although the Caps are still without defenseman Brian Pothier (concussion), they do have two players back – veteran forwards Michael Nylander and Chris Clark – who missed more than half of last season. Nylander has been virtually a point-a-game player since the lockout and Clark is the gritty team captain whose presence down low was sorely missed last season, both at even strength and on the power play.
“They’re two great free agent signings that we didn’t have to sign,” says Boudreau, speaking of the two. “Here you’ve got a 30-goal guy that gets a hundred minutes in penalties,” he continues, speaking of Clark. “He competes and stands up for his teammates. Those are hard guys to come by. Chris Clark, if he was on the free market, would have been very sought-after. We have him, he’s hungry to play again and when he played in the preseason he got better and better each game. He still scored three or four goals in the preseason in the four games he played. I thought he did real well.”
“The toughest part was the rehab because it’s a long haul and a long time,” says Nylander, who underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff last January. “You have to just be patient and have the stuff healing. That was the toughest part. The team was doing well and I was almost ready to come back for the playoffs, but unfortunately we lost out. But here we are again and I’m looking forward to the season. I’m ready to go 100% now and I am real excited for the start of the season.”
Clark’s season was shredded by a nagging groin ailment that limited him to just 18 games. He’ll open the 2008-09 season skating on a line with Nylander, a prospect that excites him.
“It’s great,” Clark says. “It’s been a long time since I played with a really skilled center like that. I think he made [Jaromir] Jagr in New York, made him what he was. To play with someone like that who can control the game, it’s a once in a lifetime deal.
“You never know when the passes are coming, so you have to be ready with him. I know he knows, but he’s the only person out there who knows when he is going to pass it. It’s never when you think it is.”
Besides Nylander and Clark, Poti is back to 100% after playing through a shoulder injury that limited his offensive effectiveness last season.
“It was unfortunate,” says Poti of his injury. “My shoulder was pretty banged up last year and I couldn’t do a lot of things offensively that I used to do. But I was able to concentrate on defense and work on my defensive game. I think I improved that a tremendous amount. Obviously I’d like to keep that up this year and chip in with more offense.”
He’s back. He’s 23. He’s got 13 years left on his deal.
When the Capitals opened the 2005-06 season after a lockout killed the previous campaign, only eight of the 20 players who suited up for the opening night contest against Columbus were holdovers from the 2003-04 season. Three years later, only five of the players from the 2005-06 opening night roster are on this year’s roster: forwards Ovechkin, Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley, defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and goaltender Brent Johnson.
“We know what we have to do,” says Boudreau. “I think the players are committed to knowing what we have to do. We’ve just got to go do it. But every team is going to be gunning for us; there are going to be no easy days.
“We got what we did last year by outworking other teams, out-willing them and out-wanting them. Unless we get that back, we won’t be in the same boat as we were last year. We’ll be fighting an uphill battle because nothing came easy. We think we’re a better team. We think we’re on the right road. But that’s the one great thing about sports. You have to do it; you can’t just talk your game without doing it. We’ll go out and play our rear ends off and hopefully, that’s good enough.
Just as they did last season, the Caps will open with three games in four nights. They won all three of those contests, but then stumbled to a 3-14-1 mark over the next 18. That valley set the stage for Boudreau’s entrance. Expectations are higher this time around.
“We want to go all the way this year and nothing else,” says Poti. “We got a little bit of a taste of it last year, and the boys are hungry and chomping at the bit to get the season started.”
“So far everything is run as if we knew what we were doing,” says Boudreau, speaking of training camp. “The proof will be starting this week to see if it’s worked out. We think we’ve worked hard but we’ve only compared our work ethic against ourselves. We’ll see if we’re ready; hopefully we are. We’ll have a big test Friday night.”
And 81 more after that.