A year ago, thanks to the lockout-condensed NHL season, the Capitals had played seven regular-season games by the time 18 days had passed from the opening of training camp.
This year, normalcy returns. The Caps have eight exhibition games and a full 18-day training camp to get ready for the 82-game regular season that opens Oct. 1 in Chicago.
"Last year was very unique because some guys played hockey and some didn't," said second-year Caps coach Adam Oates, referring to players who went overseas to compete during the lockout. "Some guys are older, so they need camp. It is more important to them than say a 20-year-old who has younger legs.
"Having three weeks puts everybody on the same driveway with an opportunity to get in shape."
There's much less to sort and figure out in a full camp this year than there was last year in what was essentially minicamp. It took a while for the Caps to adapt to Oates' system and it showed as the team lost six of the first seven games before rallying to win the now-defunct Southeast Division and quality for the playoffs.
Preseason 2013 should be relatively drama-free, barring any injuries. There aren't a lot of questions to be answered or roster spots to be settled as camp begins Thursday. It should be what it is designed to be — a chance to get ready for the season.
"It will be nice," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It would have been nice last year, just for learning a new system and all. This year we get to get in shape a little better, work out a couple of kinks before we get going. It's also a good bonding experience, too. We can play some golf together, have some dinners, let everybody get into the swing.
"As much as people don't like [training camp], it is an important part of the bonding process."
Oates and his staff do have a few decisions to make. Among the questions the Caps face going into camp:
⦁ Who fills out the defensive corps behind Alzner, Mike Green and John Carlson? Washington has a number of options and won't have room for everybody. John Erskine, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, Dmitry Orlov and Tomas Kundratek aren't all making the team. Orlov is an interesting wild card after missing most of last season because of a concussion.
⦁ What do the Caps do with Tom Wilson? He won't be 20 until March. Wilson played three games with the Caps during the playoffs last season and held his own, though he didn't do anything to make his roster inclusion this year a certainty. The right wing has to go back to juniors if he doesn't stick with the Caps because of an age-limit agreement between the NHL and the Canadian junior leagues. Development-wise, he's probably beyond juniors. But is he ready for regular NHL duty?
⦁ How does Mikhail Grabovski fit? The center from Belarus was the Caps' only significant free-agent signee, and he's slated to replace Mike Ribeiro as the team's second-line center. He's had 20 or more goals three times and 25 or more assists four times, but he fell off last year in Toronto (nine goals, seven assists) and had issues with coach Randy Carlyle. Oates thinks a change of scenery will do the 29-year-old Grabovski some good. The bonding time Alzner mentioned may be just as important here as the ice time.
⦁ Is there room somewhere on the roster for Michael Latta? The 22-year-old center came over from Nashville along with Martin Erat late last season. He had two goals and an assist in five playoff games with Hershey. The website hockeysfuture.com ranks him as the Caps' No. 6 prospect.
So there's work to do, but there's time to do the work. Roster decisions will sort themselves out over the course of 18 days. Oates pretty much has one goal between now and Oct. 1.
"Have everybody healthy," Oates said. "The guys know where we're coming from. Hopefully, we'll get through camp in good shape, ready to go. Everybody is good to go right now."
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