WASHINGTON — Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige famously said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”
It may be a different sport, but that quote could apply to the Washington Capitals in 2017-18.
As they embark on a new NHL season, they have to stop living in the past. There was a noticeable hangover as the team gathered for training camp last month, followed by sluggish play in the pre-season. But they got a jolt heading into Saturday’s home opener from Captain Alex Ovechkin, whose hat trick led them to a 5-4, season-opening win at Ottawa.
The Caps are coming off back-to-back second-round playoff losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both times, Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Center Nicklas Backstrom admits that has them playing the woulda, coulda, shoulda game.
“It’s tough to get beaten by the same team two years in a row,” he said. “So, that’s something that’s in the back of our head.”
Head coach Barry Trotz noticed the mood of his team.
“The buzz early in camp wasn’t where we would like it. By design, we gave them some space to have that process of healing. But, now they’re engaged, and I think we’re going to be okay,” he said.
Winger T.J. Oshie says last year’s disappointment just makes him hungrier this season.
“When you have a team as good as we did and you don’t get the result you wanted, it’s a very big letdown and you get frustrated and mad. But, for me, once I got over those emotions, it just gave me motivation to work harder.”
And the Capitals will have to work harder for everything this season. Their playoff disappointment was followed by a loss of six players to free agency, trades, and the expansion draft.
Offensively, the Caps will need to find a way to replace the 48 goals and 58 assists compiled by wingers Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams. Those two flanked Evgeny Kuznetsov on the second line; Kuzy is coming off a career-year with 19 goals and 40 assists. That earned him an eight-year, $62.4 million contract extension.
Oshie and defenseman Dmitri Orlov also received long-term, multi-million dollar deals. But while that locks them up for the foreseeable future, it also puts the Capitals in a tight financial spot presently.
The team is right up against the salary cap, which is why they had to let a number of productive players go. It also restricts what they can do going forward. That will put the spotlight on their young replacements, but will also require even better years from their bigger players. The hope is that they have the core players to get it done.
Ovechkin recently turned 32 and is coming off a 33-goal season, the second-lowest of his career. But that was still tied for 13th-best in the league and Ovi reached 50 in each of his previous three-seasons, so he’s still an elite goal-scorer.
Backstrom is an elite center as well, finishing fourth in points in the NHL last season.
Braden Holtby remains of the best goaltenders, winning the Vezina Trophy last year after being a finalist for the award the past two years, when he compiled 90 victories.
On the blue line, Matt Niskanen and Orlov are as good a pair of lockdown defensemen as there is anywhere.
The Capitals are also expecting improved play from three young players in particular: wingers Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly. They also have high hopes for highly-skilled winger Jacob Vrana.
There’s still a lot of talent on the team and Trotz believes the young kids spread the speed more evenly through the roster.
“The way we move the puck and push the pace and break out allows us to play a quick game,” said Trotz.
Defenseman John Carlson says his new teammates fit in nicely.
“They bring a lot more energy to the room and the rink every single day. It keeps everyone more focused because they’re obviously going to be focused on making an impact,” he said.
For the first time in nearly a decade, expectations for the Capitals’ regular season success is a bit of an unknown. Will they have the best record in the NHL for the third-straight year? Probably not. They may not be the best in the Eastern Conference or even first in their own division, but they should be a playoff team.
Yes, that’s a downgrade from recent years when the Capitals were Stanley Cup favorites, but Oshie believes it may be better to be the hunter than the hunted.
“I think we took the target on our backs and handled it very well. But it is nice to get out of the spotlight a little bit and go out and just play,” he said.
Capitals players still have the same goal of winning the Stanley Cup, but instead of immediately looking ahead to April while still in October, there will be more focus on how the team develops and comes together during the six months in between.