WASHINGTON — When the NHL lost an entire season to a labor dispute nearly a decade ago, the Washington Capitals were spared many months of on-ice misery. Had they played, they no doubt would have started their streak of last-place finishes a year early.
“I was in no rush to get back last time,” General Manager George McPhee said with a laugh. “It wasn’t going to be a whole lot of fun, trying to build a team. When we came out of that, we were trying to fill boots.”
This year’s Capitals needed the lockout to end in a hurry. They’ve been Stanley Cup contenders for a while now, but they have yet to claim the title that once felt so inevitable. A lost season would have meant another crucial opportunity down the drain for Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the talented roster that McPhee has so meticulously assembled.
“We have a real solid team,” McPhee said. “We’re in good shape. We have a complete team.”
Yet they have a major new element — one that makes a crunch of a season considerably more challenging. Adam Oates is making his head coaching debut, and the players are going to have to learn his system on the fly.
“It’s very tough,” Oates said. “Communication’s vital. There’s going to be mistakes. But every system has mistakes.”
Those mistakes will be played out in January instead of October, in games that have nearly twice the importance in the standings because there are 48 instead of 82. Oates began the truncated camp with a lengthy video session to give everyone an idea of what he had in mind.
“As a forward, you’re not used to skating in certain situations your whole career, and we’re going to ask you to skate (there) now,” Oates said. “It’s a transition where they’ve got to learn to do that. And the defensemen have certain situations where they’re like that. So there’s going to be sometimes mistakes based on that, and we’ve just got to fight through that.”
The biggest change to the casual observer at camp has been the placement of Ovechkin, who has been skating at right wing instead of his customary position on the left side. It’s an experiment suggested by Oates to create a different look — one of raps on Ovechkin last year was that his moves to the net had become so familiar that defensemen had figured them out. The former two-time league MVP had a career-low 65 points last season.
“Everybody knows Ovi is to come from the left side,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Maybe it changes the situation a little bit for the other team, how they’re going to play him and stuff.”
Last summer, McPhee mostly concentrated on keeping the team intact, but there was one major addition — second-line center Mike Ribeiro — and one major departure — enigmatic winger Alexander Semin. The Capitals have at times appeared overloaded at goaltender during the last few seasons, only to have injuries or other circumstances leave the team lacking in front of the net. They can knock on wood — or ice — and proclaim themselves in good shape, at least for now, based on 23-year-old Braden Holtby’s performance in last year’s playoffs.
Holtby got to stay in game shape by playing for Hershey in the AHL during the lockout. His competition is 24-year-old Michal Neuvirth, and both should get plenty of starts in the cramped schedule to come.
Scheme-wise, Oates falls somewhere in between the offensive-minded Bruce Boudreau and defensive-first Dale Hunter. The players had to overhaul their thinking when Boudreau was fired and replaced by Hunter last November after an early-season slump, so changing gears should be nothing do.
“It’s just business,” defenseman Mike Green said. “You just go and play and do what’s put in front of you. It’s all been different the last two years, but I feel like there’s a good feeling in here as far as where we’re going.”