There is no new practice facility to move into or jerseys to unveil this season. There are no new coaches and systems to adapt to or playoff jitters to overcome.
After several years of building to this point, there are no more excuses for the Washington Capitals - it is time to win, and win big.
“I didn’t give a speech - there isn’t much else to say,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis said at the team’s media luncheon Tuesday. “We’ve done what we said we were going to do. … I don’t think there is any one thing you’ll be able to point to if we’re successful. I think it is really the amalgam of all these things. Everyone knows now - we’re spending all the money, we’ve got all the pieces, we’ve got great facilities, great fan support - it is up to you as players, and they’re so confident they can’t wait.”
Last season the goal was to earn a playoff berth. After four straight last-place finishes in the Southeast Division, it was an ambitious goal but a reasonable one considering the addition of several veterans and the expected growth of the team’s young building blocks.
A disastrous start to the season cost coach Glen Hanlon his job, but an incredible run with new boss Bruce Boudreau completed a worst-to-first transformation. The Caps won their division on the final day of the season.
General manager George McPhee set out this offseason to keep the team intact, and except for a change at goaltender, he succeeded. Expectations are soaring in the District and throughout the hockey community.
Just winning the division and losing in the first round of the playoffs isn’t good enough anymore.
“That’s not our goal. It is part of our goals, but that won’t make this season a success for us,” captain Chris Clark said. “We definitely have a team to get there, but it is our goal to do some damage once we get to the playoffs.”
Optimism reigns for this franchise, and for good reason. Goaltender Jose Theodore is the only player on Friday’s roster for the regular-season opener in Atlanta who wasn’t with the team last year.
The Caps scored 238 goals in 2007-08 - 233 of which were tallied by players still with the organization.
“I think it has kind of been a transitional phase for a while,” center Boyd Gordon said. “A lot more is expected of us. We’ve added all the pieces to the puzzle, and we have a great training facility. We have a good squad, now we just have to get it done.”
There were years of losing and plenty of patience, but the reward could worth it. The Caps will play in front of bigger crowds, part of a swell of fan interest that began during last season’s run to the postseason.
After a couple of seasons of irrelevance save for the wonder of Alex Ovechkin, Washington will be featured often on national telecasts in both the United States and Canada.
It starts with a core of young, homegrown stars. Through better drafting and shrewd trades, the Caps have assembled a deep and talented roster filled with players not yet at their peak.
McPhee has complemented his building blocks through free agency and trades (Sergei Fedorov), with a group of veterans to lead them.
While the young players will have such veterans as Fedorov, Chris Clark and Tom Poti to lean on, they grew up plenty last spring.
“Our team is still young, but we have experienced guys,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We’ve been around long enough that mistakes can’t be made just based on youth or inexperience anymore. That’s no longer a crutch for us. We expect more of ourselves.”
There will be obstacles to overcome. Theodore and his defensive corps are still getting comfortable together, and the former league MVP must prove he is the goaltender from last year and not the one who struggled in previous seasons.
The Caps won the division last year despite losing Clark, Nylander and defenseman Brian Pothier to season-ending injuries. Clark and Nylander are back, and are starting the season on the third line - proof of the team’s exceptional offensive depth.
Pothier is not back, at least for now, and the Caps are still relatively young on the blue line. A healthy Poti (he played through a shoulder injury), as well as another year of experience for players like Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, could make for a better collective group. A midseason call-up for top prospect Karl Alzner could also offer a boost.
But despite the Caps’ improved health and depth, they still must deal with heightened expectations. Washington has lost the element of surprise it had when it rallied around Boudreau to escape the NHL‘s doldrums last season.
“I don’t think it is added pressure, because I think that is our expectation as well,” goaltender Brent Johnson said. “I think with us keeping high expectations of ourselves, then there is no real added pressure to do extremely well.
“There were a few of us that were talking about the past few seasons and how we’ve been on the way up, getting better each year. This is the year that it’s got to be.”
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