Dan Daly: Winning hockey isn’t the goal
Everybody’s thinking it, so why don’t we just let Brooks Laich say it?
“Right now, it’s great to be a Washington Capital.”
If you doubt this, then you probably weren’t at National Harbor last weekend for the first-ever Capitals Convention. On a football Saturday, 5,000 fans showed up to ogle their heroes - and the team says it could have sold twice as many tickets. Heck, the Caps have had Actual Games in recent years that didn’t draw that kind of crowd.
No longer. Verizon Center will be sold out this season from start to finish - just one Red Out after another.
George McPhee says, “I never thought things could be this great here without winning a championship.”
Alex Ovechkin, in his ever-improving English, says, “Nobody can get tickets to our games. It’s like Canada.”
And with good reason. After six years under construction, the Capitals are Going For It. All the necessary pieces are finally in place. It’s the Stanley Cup or bust this season.
This year, for the first time, “there’s no ‘but for,’ ” Ted Leonsis says. “In the past, it was always, ‘We’ll have a real good team but for this or but for that.’ There was always that ‘but for’ that you weren’t entirely sure about.
“But now… our players all know the system. They all believe in the coach. We’ve got first-team All-Stars, MVPs. Our [minor league] Hershey team wins championships. We’ve got the best practice facility. We have players who want to come here and are willing to take less money because they’ll get to play with Alex and have a chance to win the Cup.”
That might be the biggest change the Capitals have undergone - how they’re viewed in the hockey world. For decades they were the Little Team That Couldn’t… and Washington was a looked-down-upon hockey town.
“Five years ago,” the owner says, “an article was written that Washington should be contracted out of the NHL. Now my bet is we’re one of the most valuable franchises in the league.”
So when Mike Knuble, a prized free agent, and Brendan Morrison were shopping around for new teams, they both found the Caps to be the best fit. That’s a huge breakthrough for any franchise, when players on other clubs see it as a desirable place to work - for reasons other than dollars and cents.
With Knuble and Morrison, the replacements for Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, the Capitals might at long last have Yahtzee. Their core players, after all - Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov - are all 25 or younger. Or as Leonsis puts it, Alexander the Great has scored 65 goals in a season and won back-to-back Hart Trophies, “and he still has upside.”
There are players in the pipeline, moreover - defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson, in particular - who could make the Caps even better. This is a club that figures to be good for a long time, at least the length of Ovechkin’s 13-year contract.
And as was evident in the playoffs last season, when they went the distance with the eventual champion Penguins, the Capitals are closer to winning the Cup than they’ve ever been. A little tighter defense here and there - and maybe a bit more luck (e.g., one or two fewer “own” goals) - is about all they need now.
The plan Leonsis and McPhee hatched in 2003 - to hold a gigantic yard sale, unload pricey veterans for prospects and draft picks and start over - is right on course. And it all, of course, starts with Ovechkin, the most dynamic player in the game.
“He’s won all these individual awards,” Leonsis says. “Now he has to take the next step toward immortality. He has to win the Stanley Cup. And because he understands that, accepts that, it permeates everything.
“One of these days, a call is going to go our way, a puck is going to hit the post and go in. If we knock on the door enough, we’re going to win one.”
Still, in this era of salary caps, it’s going to be a challenge for the owner to keep all this young talent together - or enough of it to seriously contend, season after season. The system is set up in such a way that “every year you’re going to have a chance to [sign] good players,” McPhee says, “because other teams can’t keep everybody.”
Then, too, all this Stanley Cup talk can be dangerous in a locker room full of 20-somethings. That’s why Bruce Boudreau, the Caps’ avuncular coach, hopes his players understand that “we have nothing to be overconfident about. We didn’t win anything last year. We won one playoff series when we needed to win four.”
But the expectations are there nonetheless. And really, who would want it any different?
As always, McPhee is nervous as the season gets under way, but it’s not the same nervous as last season. “Last year,” he said, “I was wondering if we were this good - if we could win the division, if we could win in the tough spots in our conference.” He’s not worried about those things now, not after the Capitals earned the second seed in the East and won back-to-the-wall playoff games in Pittsburgh and New York.
“But I’m still nervous,” he says, “because you’re always wondering if you can make the team better… or if you’re good enough.”
They’re good enough, all right. Now we’ll find out if this is the season the Capitals knock - and Lord Stanley answers.