Reporting David Elfin
When the Capitals convened last January for their brief training camp before starting their lockout-shortened season, it wasn’t only the situation that was unfamiliar.
Coach Adam Oates and assistants Tim Hunter and Calle Johansson had spent years in Washington, but not with any of the then-current players. Forwards Joey Crabb, Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski and defenseman Jack Hillen were total newcomers and expected No. 1 goalie Braden Holtby had played all of 35 games for the Caps.
While Crabb, Ribeiro and Wolski are gone, Matt Hendricks – who was more important in the locker room than on the ice – is the only longtime Cap who skated during the stretch run to the Southeast Division title and in the playoffs who’s no longer in Washington.
Mikhail Grabovski, whose speed and willingness to go to the net produced three 20-goal seasons in four years before a falling out with Toronto coach Randy Carlyle last season, was signed to replace Ribeiro at center on the second line. Grabovski, 29, is the only significant addition aside from Blaine Forsythe being promoted from video coach to replace Hunter.
“If we can stay healthy, I don’t see any reason for us not to be in the top three, top four in the conference,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “Ribs and Hendy are big losses, but everything I’ve heard about Grabovski, he’s supposed to be a pretty great guy to have.”
Left wing Troy Brouwer, whom Oates is counting on to be Washington’s No. 2 goal-scorer behind reigning MVP Alex Ovechkin, believes that their newfound stability will serve the Caps well.
“The last couple of years we’ve had a little bit of chaos as far as knowing where you fit, knowing what your role is,” Brouwer said. “It can be confusing when systems change all the time. We’re trained not to think. We’re trained to do what we know and when your system’s getting changed over and over, sometimes you fall back on the wrong system and get yourself in trouble and the team in trouble. This year, going into the second year of the same system, guys are confident. We saw how well it worked in the second half of last year, saw how good we played together. Now that we have that familiarity with each other and the system, we’re expecting big things.”
That includes in the playoffs, from which the Caps were bounced in the second round three times and the first round three times during the past six seasons, including last May when they led the New York Rangers 3-2 but lost the last two contests including their fourth Game 7 defeat on home ice during that span.
“We have three coaches in three years and we have new systems every playoffs,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, one of eight Caps to have played in postseason series losses under Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and Oates. “I think it’s good that we settled a system and [can] work from there. I think Oates’ system is really good for us and hopefully we can take that next step.”
Defenseman Mike Green said the Caps should get off to a better start than they did last year when they won just one of their first seven games, didn’t reach .500 until Game 36, and needed a 15-3-1 tear to capture their fifth Southeast Division title in six seasons.
“Everything was so quick last year, especially with the new system and coach [and] so many different faces,” Green said. “We all feel comfortable [now]. It’s important for us to jell quickly, get off to a good start and keep that tempo all year. We’re in a good place.”
That’s also how George McPhee, entering his 15th year as Washington’s general manager, sees his team which has only five players in their 30s: wingers Jason Chimera, Martin Erat, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward and defenseman John Erskine.
“It’s a veteran team now, but a young veteran team,” McPhee said. “We’re still on the front nine. We’ve got a coaching staff that’s familiar with the group. It just seems like a real sound, solid group that should be a good team. As good as it is consistently making the playoffs, it can be so much greater and I think the players understand that. They’ve done a lot, but they need to win a Cup.”
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green, the only Caps to have skated in all nine playoff series during the past decade, know that all too well.
“We’ve been there every year,” Green said. “We’ve proven ourselves in that aspect that we’re a good team, but we haven’t proven that we’re a great team. The only way we can do that is by winning the Stanley Cup.”
That would be the kind of change in which Washington could really believe.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.