T.J. Oshie sat down at a table to participate in an online video press conference and enthusiastically yelled out, “Let’s go!” In normal times, a routine interaction with the media likely would have not prompted such as reaction from the Washington Capitals winger, but on this occasion, it was another sign that hockey is close to resuming.
The Capitals began taking the ice as a team this week, returning to practice at MedStar Capitals IcePlex in Arlington. Later this month, they’ll travel to Toronto as part of the NHL’s 24-team restart. They even have a schedule, with their first game set for Aug. 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It can be hard to remember now, with the NHL season halted for four months due to the coronavirus pandemic. But before the stoppage, the Capitals were in a rut — losing 10 of their last 15.
The time off gave Washington a chance to reset, and for coach Todd Reirden that meant finding ways to better incorporate his new players.
In February, the Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon and winger Ilya Kovalchuk before the trade deadline. The deals, on paper, addressed weaknesses for Washington, but the on-ice transition wasn’t the smoothest.
Now, instead of the Capitals trying to figure it out on the fly, Reirden has weeks to incorporate the two with a training camp and scrimmages before the season restarts.
Reirden called the added practices “an advantage.”
“It’s like starting a new season for them,” Reirden said. “And now they’re comfortable with how we practice, how we train off the ice, different things we do within our room, fitting in with guys, I just think that they both seem a lot more comfortable and that’s exciting because they both have a great really strong pedigrees in terms of leadership and their ability to have a strong voice in our locker room.
“That’s something that we felt we wanted to add in addition to their playing ability.”
A physical presence, Dillon was brought in from San Jose to help shore up an inconsistent blue line. Michal Kempny, a year after tearing his hamstring, struggled to regain the form that proved to be so valuable to the Capitals throughout their Stanley Cup run in 2018. Offseason acquisition Radko Gudas started the year strong, but his play declined to the point in which he was completely out of the lineup before the stoppage.
Kovalchuk, meanwhile, was added to help boost Washington’s bottom six. The Capitals are the 37-year-old’s third team this season as he spent the first few months with the Los Angeles Kings and the Montreal Canadiens. Through seven games with Washington, Kovalchuk recorded four points (one goal, three assists).
On a video conference call, Kovalchuk said he is “way more comfortable” being around Washington now and having practices to get up to speed.
“The second time around, it’s much easier when you know the guys and the coaching staff and the system,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s nice to be feeling familiar with everything.”
Besides incorporating Dillon and Kovalchuk, Reirden will have to make roster decisions to get ready for Toronto as Washington has 31 players in camp, an increase from the usual 23 it carries for the season. Before the Capitals begin the playoffs, they will participate in three conference games to determine postseason seeding.
Reirden said he’ll use those games to possibly evaluate players such as Connor McMichael, Washington’s first-round pick from 2019 who was added to the team’s training camp roster. Reirden said it is a possibility that McMichael could play — if he earns a spot.
“It’s important that our game is starting to head in the right direction,” Reirden said.