The Washington Capitals will embark on a new era in the franchise’s history when they open the season Tuesday in Chicago against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.
They will officially leave the Southeast Division behind.
The National Hockey League has buried the Southeast Division with the new realignment going into effect this season. Instead of the Capitals being in the Southeast Division, along with Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington is now a member of the newly-named Metropolitan Division, along with seven other teams, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and New York Islanders.
On paper, this does not bode well for the Capitals, because the Southeast Division was very good to this franchise, as you can see from the seven division championship banners that hang in the rafters at the Verizon Center.
Then again, the last time the Capitals went beyond the second round of the NHL playoffs was the 1997-1998 season, when they won the Eastern Conference finals and were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals — the year before they entered the newly-created Southeast Division.
That was general manager George McPhee’s first year on the job, by the way.
Owner Ted Leonsis has never known anything but his Southeast Division success, purchasing the team from Abe Pollin during its first Southeast Division campaign.
I think it’s safe to say that many who care about the Washington Capitals would just as soon leave their Southeast Division legacy behind and move on to something more fulfilling. Matching their last season before the Southeast Division was created — an Eastern Conference title and a Stanley Cup finals appearance — would go a lot further than those division banners on display at Verizon.
Whether it’s the Metropolitan Division or the Southeast Division, the song remains the same — playoff failures for the Capitals during the golden era of Alex Ovechkin.
Here you have a player who has now won three Hart Trophies as the league’s Most Valuable Player, yet there is a bad taste lingering during the Ovechkin era from the team’s playoff failures — and his playoff failures.
Last year, Ovechkin won his third MVP, yet the Capitals were gone from the playoffs after losing 5-0 in Game 7 at Verizon Center to the Rangers in the first round. It was another disappointing exit, but the continued failure had a rationalization out to ease the pain — a rookie coach, Adam Oates, dealing with a major change in the way the team operated on the ice, and doing so during a shortened training camp due to the NHL lockout.
Those are all reasonable explanations for what was the typical Capitals result.
Ovechkin probably doesn’t win his third MVP without the switch from left wing to right. It was a lot for Oates to handle in his first heading coaching campaign, and in doing so he seems to have won the confidence and faith of his superstar player.
“Adam showed me everything,” Ovechkin told reporters after the announcement came of his third MVP. “It’s all about him … without him I never go to right wing, and I never go to probably that kind of position that I have right now.”
Oates said the success of the move illustrated something deeper — something that runs through the team. “It was good for him, no question, but he had to have the faith that he was going to be OK and it was going to help the team because that’s how I sold it to him,” Oates told reporters.
OK, so now you have Oates with his rookie coaching year behind him, coming off a full training camp and a happy MVP winner whose new position makes him and the team better. So the reasonable explanations of last year’s failures now turn into reasonable expectations for this year’s success.
You’ve got the Hall of Fame player-turned-coach having handed as tough a rookie year of NHL coaching as you’ll see and come out of it with his superstar player pledging his allegiance to him. You’ve got the franchise goaltending icon, Olie Kolzig, now in charge as goaltending coach, and a young, mentally tough goalkeeper in the Kolzig mold in Branden Holtby.
These are ingredients for playoff success beyond anything the Washington Capitals ever did in the Southeast Division — like maybe reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com