- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Matt Niskanen paused. Just moments earlier, the Captials defenseman had admitted portions of training camp felt bland — something coach Barry Trotz had also acknowledged days before.

Was it a hangover from the Eastern Conference Second Round Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in May? Was it because the team’s veterans had been through so many camps before?

“It seemed like we were dragging a bit,” Niskanen said. “We didn’t have the same jump, the same enthusiasm.”

Jump or no jump, the Capitals’ season starts Thursday in Ottawa, and for once, they enter the season without outsize expectations of a Stanley Cup.

Washington underwent major changes in the offseason — losing key contributors in free agency and the expansion draft. They tied the franchise’s future, for good or bad, to Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie with a couple of eight-year deals.

In May, general manager Brian MacLellan aired his frustrations over the Game 7 loss. But in the end, he elected to keep most of Washington’s core in place.

Perennial Stanley Cup favorites in recent years, the Capitals in 2017 must balance contending for a title with building for the future.

“On paper, it might not look as good to some,” Niskanen said. “But the game’s not played on paper.”

Pittsburgh hangover

Trotz was more direct in his assessment of the Capitals’ preseason.

“Let’s quit with the self pity,” Trotz said after a 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Sept. 29. The Capitals finished the preseason, 2-5.

Last season’s playoff loss to Pittsburgh was crushing for the Capitals. Niskanen was seen shaking in anger in his exit interview in May with the media. He later described feeling sick to the stomach for days. Afterwards, he largely ignored the NHL playoffs, only checking the scores of the finals.

Among the Capitals, there was a sense they missed an opportunity against the eventual Stanley Cup champions. They climbed out of a 3-1 hole, but fell short. Again.

“It’s got to be mental, right?” Niskanen said. “You don’t physically deteriorate that badly in the matter of two days.”

“It’s tough to get beaten by the same team two years in a row,” Capitals star Nicklas Backstrom said. “Obviously that’s something that’s in the back of our head. Same time, you have to look forward. It’s a new season.”

For this year’s training camp, Trotz said he tailored the schedule to allow his veterans ease into the long season.

The Capitals needed to figure out the bottom of their roster and Trotz acknowledged the stakes of a September preseason game were meaningless for a lot of players. He let them work through the Penguins defeat.

The hope — and more importantly, the expectation — is that they’ll be ready for the season.

“You have to understand which place you’re in,” Trotz said. “That’s part of coaching and managing groups. … If they’re not in a good place, just sort of let them work through it and then get going. This is a pretty good group.”

The belief they can still compete

When Oshie signed an eight-year, $46 million contract extension in June, he told reporters the Capitals were capable of winning “multiple” championships.

On Tuesday, Oshie doubled down.

“We have a very good core leadership group,” Oshie said. “We’ve got some very good players surrounded by those guys. That just gives me the feeling this team is destined to do great things and that we’ll able to.”

Title or bust?

It’s unrealistic to expect athletes to admit they don’t have a shot at winning; they aren’t going to say, “We have no shot this year, so don’t watch us.”

Niskanen was more reserved — though confident.

“We have the horses to go further than we have,” he said.

But Oshie’s point circles back to the Capitals still having Backstrom and star Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals lost Justin Williams in free agency and traded away Marcus Johansson, but there’s elite level talent on this roster.

The Capitals are counting on added contributions from Kuznetsov, who signed an eight-year, $62.4 million extension in July, and Andre Burakovsky to take additional steps forward.

Kuznetsov and Oshie also face new expectations that they can produce at even higher levels. Oshie is coming off a career year and Kuznetsov is only 25.

“I wouldn’t say pressure, [but] I think there’s responsibility to live up to the number, for sure,” Oshie said.

There’s also hope that Ovechkin will have a rebound season. MacLellan called last year “the minimum” from the Russian, who averaged a career-low 18:22 minutes per game and had 33 goals — his lowest pace in five seasons.

MacLellan said Ovechkin will see more ice time this season.

The Capitals also are trying to make it easier for Ovechkin to score. Trotz has Ovechkin and Backstrom on separate lines, breaking with the team’s tradition. Ovechkin is now paired with Kuznetsov and prospect Jakub Vrana. Backstrom will be with Oshie and Burakovsky.

Who knows if 50 goals — a mark Ovechkin has hit seven times in 12 seasons — is still possible, but the Capitals are determined to maximize their star’s production.

“Splitting up Nick and Alex makes other teams make a decision on who they want to play their top defensemen against,” MacLellan said. “One of those lines gets the second D-pair and will benefit whoever that is.”

A different path

For much of the offseason, Trotz and MacLellan maintained the team was getting younger. Even on Wednesday, Trotz called the Capitals’ prospects “the foundation of our future.”

But for the team’s roster to start the season, the Capitals have audibled on some of those plans. On Thursday night, Washington’s second defensive pair will be John Carlson and Brooks Orpik.

The initial idea was to pair Carlson and Orpik with a young defenseman and help them along the way. That didn’t come to fruition as the defense struggled in the preseason with too many mistakes. Defenseman Christian Djoos was the only player without NHL experience to make the roster.

Washington has a brutal stretch to start the year with eight of the first 12 games on the road. Trotz said it made more sense, for now, to rely on veterans.

Once the season settles in, he said, there will be opportunities for younger players to get called up — particularly defenseman Madison Bowey, whose $703,333 salary got in the way of making the cash-strapped Capitals’ initial roster.

Offensively, prospects like Vrana and Nathan Walker solidified spots. Washington is counting on Vrana to produce next to Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. For the bottom six, three new additions — Devante Smith-Pelly, Tyler Graovac and Alex Chiasson — all exceeded expectations and won spots over some of the Capitals’ prospects from Hershey.

There’s a lot at stake, especially for Trotz, who is in the last year of his contract and hasn’t had any discussion of an extension.

But he’s comfortable with the high expectations that come with the dawn of a new Capitals season — even with the changes.

“It doesn’t mean that we can’t get to where we want to be,” Trotz said. “It just means we have to take a little different path.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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