- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It’s scary how young the Capitals still are. They’ve been good for four seasons now - good enough to win four straight Southeast Division titles, good enough to earn the first seed in the playoffs the past two years. Yet you scan their roster and you count 10 players - none older than 25 - who have helped them get where they are.

Most of these players constitute the Caps’ core - Alex Ovechkin (25), Nicklas Backstrom (23), John Carlson (21), Marcus Johansson (20), the three goaltenders (23, 22 and 21). In just about every NHL locker room there’s a guy who’s the resident Repository of Institutional Knowledge, who has been with the club forever and can regale the kids with stories of past glories. But the Caps don’t really have a guy like that.

No one remains from the 1998 team, the only one in franchise history to reach the Stanley Cup finals. Indeed, the Capital of longest duration goes back only as far as 2003. That would be Boyd Gordon, who’s all of 27. (Gordon’s main distinction is that he’s the last connection to the Jaromir Jagr era, not that there’s much nostalgia for those times.)

So the Caps end up renting these Repositories of Institutional Knowledge. They trade for Scott Hannan (32) during the season. They make deadline deals for Jason Arnott (38) and Marco Sturm (32). A couple of years ago, they signed Mike Knuble (now 38) as a free agent. This is their been-there-done-that brigade. But here’s the thing: The history of Arnott et al. isn’t the Caps’ history, it’s somebody else’s history.

It’s time for this club to start making some of its own history - to get back to the finals, to finally win a Cup. The pieces are in place. The time would seem to be right. Of course, some would say the history-making should have begun last year, when the Capitals lapped the Eastern Conference field in the regular season, only to get bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens.

Many owners, adhering to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out principle, would have made major changes after such a fiasco. After all, it was the Caps’ third straight playoff disappointment, the third straight year their season had ended on their home ice in a Game 7. But Ted Leonsis is a man of near-infinite patience. And besides, there’s so much youth on the team. Maybe it just needed a while longer in the incubator.

“You can see they’re more responsible now,” Knuble says. “It’s not all about having a good time. When a lot of ‘em got here, I think, there was no pressure. Everybody was patting ‘em on the back and saying, ‘You’re young. You’re going to be good in a few years. You’re going to be this; you’re going to be that. Wait till you’re older.’ And I guess they are now. There’s an undertone of more seriousness. Guys are more committed on and off the ice to being a better group.”

You have to admit, the NHL has undergone an unusual evolution. Before the lockout in 2004, championship clubs tended to have veteran-laden rosters, with a few neophytes sprinkled in. This was before all the rule changes that, as Arnott puts it, “turned it into more of a skating, puck-moving, quicker game - more of a young guy’s game.”

When he won the Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2000, “I was one of the younger guys on the team, and I was 25,” he says. “Aside from me, Patrik Elias [24], Scotty Gomez [20] and Petr Sykora [23], pretty much everybody else was in their 30s. It was just the opposite of here.

“But it was a totally different game back then. I mean, you could basically kill somebody out there with your stick or whatever, and they’d just kinda let it go. You can’t do much of that anymore.”

What’s more, the kids coming in are more highly skilled, able to make key contributions at an early age. Heck, the Penguins won the Cup in 2009 with 21-year-old Sidney Crosby, 22-year-old Evgeni Malkin, 20-year-old Jordan Staal and 24-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury leading the way. It was the vets, not the youngsters, who were sprinkled in.

Last April, the Capitals were poised to take another step in their Stanley Cup quest - and were sent staggering back by the Canadiens. Sometimes, though, that’s the only way a club can learn, Knuble says - by getting “smacked in the face. But we’re all ready to go now. We were ready to go as soon as we lost to the Canadiens last year. We wanted to fast-forward a year.”

It’s time the Capitals grew up, grew into a team equal to the sum of its impressive parts. I know it, you know it, the rest of the league knows it. We’ll find out in the weeks ahead, beginning Wednesday night against the New York Rangers, whether the Caps know it.

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