- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2019

ARLINGTON — The Stanley Cup Final last June showed the hockey world that a bruising, physical style can still lift a team to the pinnacle of the sport.

The Washington Capitals seemed to take that into consideration when remaking their bottom-six forward group and replacing a retired defenseman. Coach Todd Reirden said some of their new players weren’t chosen “by accident.”

“That’s what you can look to see. Some guys that aren’t necessarily all that fun to play against,” Reirden said Thursday at the team’s media day.

After adding some tough players over the summer, the Capitals enter the 2019-20 season facing a tough reality: Several of their best players are 30 or older, two key cogs are in the last year of their contracts and their window to win a second Stanley Cup won’t be open forever.

“We tried to keep the majority of our core guys after having won the Stanley Cup, but this is different now,” Reirden said. “We’re turning the page on that and we’ve got something that we want to go after again and we feel we can compete for, and that’s another Stanley Cup.

“I think that with those (new) players, what you’re going to see is you’re going to see players that — much like I talked about the style of play — they’re aggressive, skating, physical.”

The Capitals traded defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas last summer, but essentially Gudas was brought in to replace Brooks Orpik, who retired and now will work in the organization’s player development department. The hope is that Gudas will fit Orpik’s mold of a physical “defensive defenseman” — though it’s a concern that the 29-year-old has been suspended four times in the past four seasons and could incur a long ban if he hits someone the wrong way.

There’s also the retooling of the third and fourth lines, which could not match the production of the Carolina Hurricanes’ bottom lines in Washington’s first-round series loss last April. Wingers Richard Panik, Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway signed with Washington in free agency, and Reirden believes they will add some aggressiveness to the forward group’s identity.

It’s welcome news to bruising top-line right wing Tom Wilson.

“Fine by me,” Wilson said. “I think you always want a team that’s hard to play against first and foremost. When a team comes into your rink you want them to know it’s going to be a tough game. You want to have that identity a little bit. We’ve been a team over the years that we could play a variety of games and that’s important. I think we added some weight.”

Defenseman John Carlson said being tough to play against can mean one of two things.

“It can mean physical or it can just mean in-your-face with a little more attacking,” he said. “I think that can do the same thing as running people over like some guys can do … I don’t know where we would rank in terms of size, but we seem to be one of the bigger teams and we’ve got to use it to our advantage and we’ve got guys who can skate as well. So, if you’re not running guys over to be aggressive, getting in peoples’ faces a little more can have the same effect sometimes.”

The Capitals will face stiff competition in the division this year, not only from familiar suspects like the Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins, but also from the new-look New Jersey Devils, who figure to bounce back with the additions of P.K. Subban and No. 1 overall draft pick Jack Hughes.

Meanwhile, Washington’s time at the top might be running short. ESPN and The Athletic both recently ranked every NHL team’s farm system, and both pegged Washington’s group of prospects in the bottom five. And with goalie Braden Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom not under contract beyond 2020, it’s hard to predict what future Capitals teams could look like.

General manager Brian MacLellan and the Capitals‘ front office have met with Holtby’s camp to discuss a new contract, but not with Backstrom’s yet.

“I still feel like we’re the same core group here, we’re pretty confident that we can do it again and we believe in ourselves and that’s what you’ve got to do,” Backstrom said. “I think, too, that you can’t look too much ahead.”

“Until something happens there’s no use expending your energy on it, worrying about stuff like that,” Holtby said. “I’m in a great city here with a great team right now so I might as well enjoy it and create something special.”

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