Caps begin pursuit of Cup as they open their 36th training camp
Despite missing 13 games, defenseman Jeff Brown ranked among the league’s top 10 in scoring among defensemen. St. Louis had signed bruising blueliner Scott Stevens away from Washington, and he was in his first season with the Blues.
At 28 years of age, Courtnall and Oates were the eldest of all of the above-mentioned players. Goaltender Curtis Joseph, 23 at the time, was about to come into his own.
St. Louis had a long string of consecutive playoff appearances at the time and a long string of early exits. Still, the pieces seemed to be in place to build a club that would contend into the new decade.
It never happened, mainly because management became impatient and broke up the Blues, disintegrating the young core into bits and pieces scattered about the league.
Last season’s Washington Capitals enjoyed a record-smashing regular season under third-year coach Bruce Boudreau, but the club came up short in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Caps squandered a 3-1 series lead in losing their opening round series to the Montreal Canadiens. Washington’s high-powered offense managed exactly one goal in each of its last three playoff losses, and its No. 1 ranked power play was an anemic 1-for-33 in the seven-game series.
Rather than blow up a team that’s burgeoning with young talent, Caps general manager George McPhee has elected to keep the band together. Training camp opened on Saturday in preparation for the Oct. 8 season opener, but don’t expect many new faces on Washington’s opening night roster when the Caps take to the ice on that Friday in Atlanta next month.
“We had a fabulous season last year and for about six and a half months we were a terrific team,” says McPhee. “And in five days we lost it. We came to camp expecting to be good and we had a real good season with really no adversity. Then we start the playoffs and we’re up three games to one, and within five days it fell apart.
“We didn’t play well enough in Game 5. We couldn’t have played better than we did in Game 6; that was probably the best game we played all season. And we were pretty good in Game 7, but their goalie was great and our power play didn’t work. We scored one goal a game the last three games and our strength all year was scoring. It didn’t work out, but I can’t allow five days to get in the way of what we think is a terrific team. So we’d like to keep them together and see how they do this year.”
Only three times in the team’s franchise history has a goaltender aged 22 or younger played more than half the games between the pipes in Washington (Jim Bedard in 1977-78 and Jim Carey in 1994-95 and 1995-96). But that distinction seems to be a virtual certainty to occur in 2010-11. Washington will cast its lot with a pair of 22-year-old netminders in Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.
“The expectation is we’ll start with Neuvirth and Varlamov,” declares McPhee. “We’ve been waiting for this opportunity with them. We were really high on both of them after we drafted them; we thought both of them should have gone in the first round. We felt fortunate that we got both of them. This is a case of believing that we’ve developed them properly. They’ve both had a couple years pro now.
“Our strategy in signing Jose [Theodore] a couple of years ago was that he would build that bridge to this opportunity, to this time. Everything has gone well for these two guys. We think they’re really good and [goaltending] could be a strength of our team this year.”
For the last three training camps, Washington’s blueline corps was virtually unchanged. But Brian Pothier, Milan Jurcina and Shaone Morrisonn have departed. Washington is expecting first-rounders Karl Alzner (fifth overall in 2007 NHL Entry Draft) and John Carlson (27th overall in 2008) to step into the breach.
“We just want them to continue to grow from where they were,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau of the young defensive duo. “I thought Carly was great when we called him up after the [trade] deadline and Karl Alzner was probably our best defenseman in Game 7. If they can continue at that pace – and I am sure that they well – they’re great young men and [they’ve got] great character. That’s why we were not so worried about having to go out and find all these defensemen, because these two guys are ready for the NHL.”
“We expect them to play a lot this year,” echoes McPhee. “Last year we had eight defensemen here and it was hard to get everyone in. We thought both of them could play here last year. It certainly didn’t hurt that they got more time in Hershey, but at some point you can’t hold them back any longer and you have to let them go and play. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of developing some of our other players, and we think we’ve developed both of them well. It’s time for them to play because they are good players.”
Everyone knows that Nicklas Backstrom will be centering Washington’s top forward line this season, but camp performance will go a long way toward determining which pivots fall in line behind Backstrom. Incumbent veterans Tomas Fleischmann, Boyd Gordon, and David Steckel and up-and-comers Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle will all be in the mix on the other three lines, with Fleischmann easily having the inside track for the second line spot.
“We’re pretty confident in [Backstrom],” says McPhee, “and there’ll be some pretty healthy competition for the other spots. Obviously we have some other veterans in Steckel and Gordon, and Fleischmann wants to play that second line spot. But we’ve got some young players that are pretty good players. They’re young but they’re good. We’re going to take a pretty good look and see what we have.”
Fleischmann spent the second half of the season in second line pivot’s role, and he showed a flair for the offensive side of the gig. What remains to be seen is whether he can upgrade his face-off prowess and refine his own-zone game enough to give the Caps that viable second-line pivot that every Stanley Cup contender needs.
Forward Brooks Laich, a linemate of Fleischmann’s for much of last season, isn’t worried.
“We won 14 games in a row last year when Tomas Fleischmann was playing center,” states Laich. “I don’t know if anybody in here knew that. People say he’s not a natural centerman, but the results speak for themselves. He’s got the ability to move the puck on the forehand and the backhand. He can skate. And also myself being a centerman, I can help him down low, too. If he’s tired we can switch on and off. I think we’re both smart players so we can read off each other. And I think he’s more offensive-minded than maybe the other options at center for that line.
“I’m looking forward to having a good camp with him. I think he’s going to be a great centerman. We’ll try to help him with his face-offs as much as we can. Just like with anything, I think he’s going to get better throughout the year.”
The Caps’ organization is teeming with good young talent at the moment; its AHL affiliate in Hershey has copped consecutive Calder Cup championships. But beyond Neuvirth, Alzner and Carlson, it will be difficult for members of the Hershey Bears to crack the 2010-11 opening night roster, particularly up front where the Caps return largely the same corps or forwards from 2009-10.
“We’ve got six [pre-season] games,” says Boudreau. “Usually in the end what happens is the players decide who’s on the team and who’s not. I know what certain guys do whether they’re good or bad. Other guys might push you into thinking [you can make a trade] because this guy is real good. There is going to be quite a competition going on this week.”
“They have to show us they can make us a better team,” says McPhee. “In some ways, we have to try to find room for them, but they have to knock out an incumbent, and that’s going to be hard. But if they can, and it makes us a better team, they’ve got to play here.”
The kids will get a look, but it seems more than likely that Washington will go to war with many of the same players that have suffered through Game 7 playoff eliminations on home ice in each of the last three springs. The Caps are the only team in NHL history to endure that ignominious fate, but they’re grateful for another chance to get it right.
“I think it shows that he thinks we have the team to do it here and that last year was a little blip in the radar,” says veteran right wing Matt Bradley. “It shouldn’t happen like that, but it did. We all feel good that he has confidence in us that we can do the job, and we’re going to spend the whole season proving him right.”
“It’s a vote of confidence from our management,” says Laich. “It could have been easy for them to go and blow it up after the utter embarrassment of what happened in the playoffs. That would have been the easy way. But that shows the belief they have in the players. It shows that they’re patient, that they’re not going to push the panic button and that they understand that it is very, very hard to win in this league. It’s nice for us as players to know that our management has faith in us. Now it’s time for us to reward them and start to win and to win at the right time of the year.”
Between now and then, the Caps have a training camp and an 82-game regular season slate. They know they can’t prove their detractors wrong until April, and that they’ve got to have a strong regular season between now and then.
“It was there for us in Game 5,” laments McPhee of last season’s early exit. “We didn’t do it. We’re all disappointed. But based on what it has taken to build this team and how they’ve performed the last couple of years, we feel we owe them another chance.”