Capitals preview: Skating against the current

The Washington Capitals were the oldest team in the NHL last year.

Their top four-point producers last winter were over 30, and that doesn’t include the likes of bottom-six mainstays like Lars Eller and Craig Hagelin, or defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Justin Schultz.

Despite what Alex Ovechkin is doing deep into his thirties, age is unbeaten on the ice and the older teams have a way of seeming like they’re skating uphill in the playoffs. But instead of a burden, some within the team feel its experience will be a boost.

“To have Johnny, and Osh and Ovie and Nicky — to have those guys in your room every day is just like it’s a huge privilege,” Tom Wilson said. “I don’t know how many teams around the league have that caliber of a group leading them every day. It’s exciting to have some new faces that you see looking up to those guys.”

After bowing out in the first round of the playoffs for the third year straight, the core was kept intact with a few minor tweaks. Even the player lost in the Expansion Draft to Seattle (goaltender Vitek Vanecek) was brought back for the price of a 2023 second round pick. But don’t tell this team they’re too old to compete in the Metropolitan Division.

“I think there’s probably going to be a lot of talk,” forward T.J. Oshie said on the team’s media day. “There already has been a lot of talk, there’s probably will be more as the season goes on about the average age in the group.”

Oshie turns 35 this December, but is coming off of his most productive season from a points-per-game standpoint (43 in 53 games) since 2016-17. Last year, he had to play a few games at center due to a short-handed roster and one hopes that won’t be the case this season, but the team begins the year with center Nicklas Backstrom on long-term injured reserve.

The veteran who led the team in assists and points last winter has missed 17 regular season games over the last nine years, and he’ll be out at least the first 10 this fall.

Ovechkin led the team in goals last winter as he has done every season in his career (he tied T.J. Oshie for the team lead with 33 in 2016-17). His 2021-22 debut is up in the air after a lower-body injury suffered in a preseason game.

While Ovechkin is looking forward to getting on the ice, he’s also looking to his second season working with head coach Peter Laviolette.

“I think that first year it’s always hard for the new coach and the players to understand the system and understand what coach wants from you,” Ovechkin said. “Right now, it’s going to be much easier to know his personality, what he wants from me or what he wants from the team.”

Three years ago during the Stanley Cup Playoff run, many thought they were seeing a symbolic passing of the torch with Evgeny Kuznetsov’s 12 goals and 20 assists over 24 playoff games.

Since raising the Cup, the center has averaged 16 goals and 35 assists per season while missing time due to suspension as well as COVID-19. But the 29-year old feels he’s going to have a bounce-back season.

“It’s like when you lose a game in the playoffs, or a game seven, you sit in the locker room and you feel that pain, right?” Kuznetsov said. “Next year you go-you don’t want to feel that pain again. So you can use that as a motivation, as a target, as a goal: don’t feel that again.”

Kuznetsov did not tally a point in three playoff games this past spring. But the player many thought might be left exposed in the Expansion Draft will be expected to contribute if this team wants to contend.

“You know, we’ll be counting on him,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s really gonna get an opportunity to take hold and show what he can do. He’s proven to be a high-end player, a really impactful player.”

The team ranked fourth in goals per game last winter but finished 17th in goals allowed. And although they had the fifth best penalty kill the Caps had the sixth most penalty minutes in the NHL.

And the blue line this winter will be minus the size of 6-foot-9 veteran Zdeno Chara (who signed with the New York Islanders) and dependability of Brenden Dillon (played in all 56 games last season before being traded to Winnipeg).

But Dmitry Orlov is back, and feels they’ll make up for those losses.

“We have to,” Orlov said. “We don’t have a choice, we’ll have to use what we have and try to find ways to have to bring something new to the table to be successful.”

Back in goal is the combination of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov.

The season starts with six of the Capitals’ first eight games taking place in Washington. Conventional wisdom sees the opportunity for a little October home cooking as well as the chance for a team that’s a little older and already banged up to ease into their first 82-game regular season in three years.

“I don’t think that it (the early home games) makes really a huge difference,” Oshie said. “I do know I am super-super-excited to play in front of a full barn at Cap One again. I miss our fans. I don’t think we really appreciated them enough until they weren’t in the building.”

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Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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