Having followed the Capitals as a fan, team statistician, and media member since their inception in 1974 there is no doubt in my mind that this franchise is currently sitting at an all time high in terms of talent and popularity. On a day when there would be no hockey played at Kettler Ice Plex in Ballston, Virginia, a very large throng of media were on hand to talk to Caps veterans, who officially reported to camp on Saturday. In addition, there were about a hundred or so fans who milled around the rink hoping to catch a glimpse of the team or get some autographs. Clearly the Caps are the story in Washington as they take aim at winning their first Stanley Cup in 2009-10 in a season in which every Capitals home game will be sold out for the first time in team history (not to mention TV ratings hit an all time high in DC and Baltimore last season and are expected to go even higher starting in October).
I asked Caps GM George McPhee, who took over in the summer of 1997 for David Poile and experienced early highs when the team reached the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season, then endured major lows when he and owner Ted Leonsis decided to tear the roster down and rebuild it in 2004, and now manages a deep squad that right now is clearly one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season, if he felt personal satisfaction in the clubs current position.
“It is great to be where we are now. We’ve developed this club into a good one and an entertaining one. It is a fun team to watch. To have all of the success we’ve had off the ice, as well, selling out the building, it is nice that we have the infrastructure in the organization on the business side to capture all of the great things that the team is doing. So it has been a lot of fun, it has been a fun team to watch, we’ve set some records for this club, done some things this team has never done before and ultimately we want to win the Stanley Cup to make it a great experience. We’ve had a couple of very good years but we want to continue to improve and hopefully the Stanley Cup is the next thing on the horizon,” answered McPhee.
The talent and excitement starts with Alexander Ovechkin, who has won the NHL MVP Award (Hart Trophy) the past two years and is quickly becoming the face of the NHL, and continues with superstars in the making in center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green plus the highly skilled and October 2008 NHL Player of the Month, Alexander Semin. Combining the skill of those four players with that of numerous others on the roster plus Coach Bruce Boudreau’s aggressive system has made the Caps a team to watch.
“I think it is fabulous. I think that our players are exciting and I think it is fun to go to a Washington Capitals game. I think we’re getting better, not sitting there and reached our peak yet. We’re still on the upswing so I think there is a good buzz in this city and hopefully that we are able to keep that buzz. Our expectations is as high as the people’s,” said Boudreau on the high interest in the Caps.
As I mentioned, there was a large contingent of media at the rink on Saturday and the very accommodating Capitals PR staff brought one player after another out for interviews. As expected, Ovechkin was the player of highest interest and when he was asked if he thought this season was Washington’s best chance to win the Stanley Cup given the contract situations of both Backstrom and Semin (restricted FA’s after the season), Ovechkin was quite clear that he did not think that anyone was going to leave the team after this season. Also, leave it to Alexander the Great to produce the funniest line of the day by joking about “injections” when Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post mentioned that his shoulders looked bigger. The interviews with Ovechkin, Green, Semin, Mike Knuble, and Brendan Morrison have already been transcribed and posted on the Capitals Insider blog so if you want to read what they had to say please click on their name (thanks Katie and Tarik!)
Speaking of injections and steroids, right out of the gate McPhee was asked about the story that came out last spring supposedly linking some Caps to a performance enhancing drug peddler and the GM provided the following response, which hopefully puts that item to bed for good.
“There was nothing to it, it has been vetted. The league looked into it and there was nothing to it,” stated the Caps GM.
The most telling and best quote of the day, in my opinion, came from forward Brooks Laich, who discussed last year’s seven game loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Last year was another step, we made it to the second round, but I think the other thing we learned last year was how good of a team Pittsburgh was and the changes that we need to make to be better. They beat us because they were a better hockey team and that is not something that is easy to say but I’m sure our guys have thought long and hard about that this summer and we are coming back and guys are excited to be back, hungry to be back, and we just want to get going,” started Laich.
“Pittsburgh’s success didn’t just come from what they did this past season. You look at their year before they learned alot going to the finals and losing to Detroit. There are certain things that they had to do to become better and the main thing, I think, is their guys they play the system no matter what, they never deviate from the way that their game plan is. I know it is sort of cliche but they are soliders, they just keep going forward, and they have belief in their game plan and that is going to help them win. I think in game seven they did that more so than we did and they took the play to us. I think that kind of humbled us a little bit and our guys are going to be better at that this year,” finished #21, who is definitely one of the team leaders in the locker room.
Here a few other notes and quotes from Saturday:
- George McPhee on forward Michael Nylander, who was scratched throughout much of last season’s playoffs, and doesn’t seem to fit in on this team:
- “He is here and in great shape. There is some discussion with some European teams. Something may develop there but we will see.”
- Do the Caps have more flexibility with the Salary Cap this season than last year?
- “Alot of teams go through this with the cap now. I think there is a lot more flexibility this year given that you have that bonus cushion back and it is a really convoluted, esoteric thing that most people don’t understand or care to but we have a cushion that we can work with this year that we didn’t have last year so there is some more flexibility,” said McPhee.
- On the additions of forwards Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble
- “We lost a couple of veterans (Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov) so we wanted to replace them with veterans and I think we got two good ones in Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. It really seems to be a good fit for us. It looks good it feels good, let’s hope it works good,” commented McPhee.
- Boudreau and McPhee were both asked about the roster and if there was only one spot available at forward:
- “If you look at it that way by just who the incumbents are and everything else that is here, yes, but we want the best team we can put on the ice. Guys may come here and they’re “wowing” people and their job is to make it difficult for us. You can sit here, like publications do, and have what the roster is going to look like and everyone puts their own assumptions in but if somebody comes in here [and does well] we want them to make us change our mind. That is what is competition and that is what we are here for,” said Boudreau.
- “That is the great thing about our game…you never know what is going to happen, there is no script and we’ll see how this thing develops. There are some assumptions you can make but let’s see how things develops over the next three weeks,” said McPhee.
Friday’s Rookie Game
For the past three years the Caps have concluded rookie camp with a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Washington lost on Friday, 7-3, but still lead the series two games to one. I had a chance to talk with George McPhee to get his take on Friday’s loss and his overall thoughts on the series.
WNST: Please give us your perspective on the rookie games with Philadelphia:
McPhee: It is important to play games in training camp, it is one thing to watch practice and go through the drills, but you learn alot more about the players when you put them in a game situation. So it was a competitive game and it was the first pro game for a lot of guys. We learned a lot about every one of them. So with that we get to do this every year and we’ll keep doing it.
WNST: Last year, here at Kettler, you really ran Philly out of here (won 7-0) and you could see that Hershey was going to have something special. I’m not sure the guys you had on the ice yesterday are your Hershey team this season?
McPhee: It was a real young team, 18 and 19 year olds and Philly didn’t have alot of 18 and 19 year olds to play. They told us that before the game so I knew it would be a handful for our young guys that were playing against, basically what was an American [Hockey League] team. But you still learn things about the players, it is still helpful. So I’m glad we did it.
WNST: Did anybody really stand out in the game?
McPhee: [John] Carlson really stood out. He was our best and we knew that going in but actually you still learn more about a guy when you see a game that is not going well but he just keeps playing better than he was at the start of the game. I think we’ve got a real good one in him.
WNST: Anybody up front [forward] stand out?
McPhee: Nobody really stood out but I liked the way some of the guys played, disappointed in some, pleased with others. But you get more information about the players that you have and that is why we are doing it.
WNST: How about Braden Holtby in goal?
McPhee: He didn’t have a very good game. The quality of the shots are better, everything is a little quicker, these aren’t junior players that are shooting, they are American leaguers. So it was a little bit of an adjustment for him but it is the same thing the other goalies have been through whether it be [Michal] Neuvirth or somebody else. Hopefully they adjust and show you how good they are.
WNST: I heard that there was quite a bit of physicality in the game. What did you think of that and how did the team respond?
McPhee: That’s the game of hockey. You’ve got skill, you’ve got finesse but you’ve also got grit and physical play. It got physical at different stages of the game but that is allowed.
WNST: All in all a good experience playing these games?
McPhee: Yup, we like it and what we have, it works well.
One final hockey note: There was a big trade in the NHL Saturday night as the Ottawa Senators sent disgruntled forward Dany Heatley and a 5th round pick to the San Jose Sharks for forwards Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo plus a 2nd round draft pick. I give a big edge on that trade to the Sharks if they can make their salary cap situation work. Heatley gives them a proven goal scorer that they have lacked come playoff time the last few seasons.