The Washington Capitals held breakdown day on Wednesday afternoon and it was obviously the best one ever, given that this year’s session followed the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup victory. The players were clearly tired from two grueling months of hockey and then the post triumph celebrations, but were extremely happy.
Here are some of the major takeaways from the day at Kettler IcePlex:
Alexander Ovechkin, now clean cut thanks to his Gillette sponsorship, is a very happy man, and rightly so. The victory has clearly brought back the old Ovi that we saw when he was younger before some of the angry and hating national and even local media constantly crushed him forcing him to withdraw some of the best sides of his personality from public view. On Wednesday, the Gr8 answered questions for 30 minutes going above and beyond the call of duty. Ovi started by stating “I still can’t believe we won, I still can’t believe we did it. Right now we are realizing how special this win was.” He also added that “We lost some key guys last year, but all of the new guys played unbelievable.” Ovi noted that this was the best team he ever played on and whenever someone got hurt, felt bad, or were suspended, people stepped up. “It was a special group.” He also praised former General Manager George McPhee for “drafting half of the group” and ended with a very classy “Thanks George for what you did here.”
Nicklas Backstrom suffered two fractures in his right index finger in game five against Pittsburgh. He said he will not need surgery. Clearly Nicky was still hurting when he came back in the lineup after missing four games and to perform the way he did with that injury – shutting down the other team’s top center in each of the Tampa and Vegas series – is the stuff of legends. Backy will have his Cup celebration in his hometown in Sweden.
Brooks Orpik injured his hand in game two of the Columbus series and also had the tip of his right pinky finger detached when Erik Haula violently slashed him at the end of game two in the Stanley Cup final. Despite the injuries, Orpik played some of his best hockey in this postseason. When asked about the improvement in his skating this past season, Brooks noted that he is always tweaking his off season training regimen to seek improvement, but he also pointed out this was the first season in a few years where he did not have any ailments that impacted his wheels. Orpik told me he’d find out on Friday if he needed surgery on his hand.
Coach Barry Trotz had initial new contract discussions with General Manager Brian MacLellan on Wednesday morning. The Stanley Cup winning coach says he wants to be back because he likes this group while also stating that the area and setup has been good for his family situation. When asked if the rest of the entire coaching staff would be back next year, he said that is unknown, at this time.
John “Big Game” Carlson has not had any contract talks with the Caps yet, but said he loves this team and would love to be back, but there are a lot of factors involved. He will be having his Stanley Cup celebration in the DC area (his wife is from the DMV). The Capitals have an advantage in negotiations since they can sign number 74 for eight years, while others can only offer seven campaigns. There is no doubt that “Big Game” is the number one offseason unrestricted free agent priority for MacLellan and the Caps. The salary cap number for 2018-19 will be out from the league on Monday, June 18th and the higher it goes, the better it is for Washington ($82M would be really nice). Backstrom, when asked about Carlson stated, “John Carlson just keeps getting better and better. It’s impressive. Hopefully he stays here.” I’ll say this now, just like I did about T.J. Oshie last year, Pay the Man! He’s a legitimate number one defenseman and easily in the top ten in the NHL, in my opinion. You don’t let stud blue liners like “Big Game” Carlson leave. Losing him would be close to the magnitude of the Scott Stevens departure back in 1990.
Defensemen Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov gave a lot of credit to assistant coach Todd Rierden for helping them improve their respective games. Kempny noted that he had little confidence when he came over in February in a trade from Chicago and that Rierden immediately helped him regain it. The Czech defensemen stated that he had some bad games in the postseason, but that Rierden was always there to give him some keys to turning things around in the next contest. Kempny, who was very vocal about coming back because the Caps have “a great group of players, coaches, and trainers,” is an unrestricted free agent and given that he played as the number four defensemen in the postseason, he’s high up on the contract pecking order for MacLellan and the Caps. He only has 103 games of NHL experience, so that could help keep his price lower (he made $900, 000 in 2017-18 and will get a decent raise). Orlov, who had his hand badly injured in the World Championships in the spring of 2014 and missed the entire first season of the Trotz era (2014-15), said he was unsure he’d ever be able to play again at a high level. Rierden has certainly helped Dima out, but I also give Orlov a ton of credit for constantly working and striving to be better. It’s amazing how far he’s come since the 2016 playoffs where he struggled against the Flyers and Penguins. He’s a quality blue liner that breaks the puck out of his own zone incredibly well.
Oshie said he hasn’t won much since he was younger, so this Stanley Cup victory has been very exciting. Courtesy of the great Tarik El-Bashir, T.J. said he was healthiest at the start of the Stanley Cup Final. He won’t require any procedures this offseason. The Osh Babe, who is one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet, told Tarik that “I didn’t even need Advil” as the SCF started.
Tom “Future Captain” Wilson noted that he played up and down the lineup this season, but said when he played 10 games straight with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, instead of just one or two, his game really took off. Willy talked at length about how close this team was (is), but credited former Cap Justin Williams for encouraging the team to have fun and said it helped loosen the team up and bond them. Top line Tommy says he’s loved his five years here, stated he’s always done whatever he can to help the team, but also said there will be an element of business this summer for him (he’s a restricted free agent). Like Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov and some others on this squad, it’s amazing how much they have improved in the four years this coaching staff has been in place. The players clearly get the majority of the credit, but you can’t discount the way the coaches have enabled these players to blossom.
On the netminding front, courtesy of Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, MacLellan said Philipp Grubauer wants to be a number one goaltender, but he’d like to keep both Grubi and Braden Holtby, be he’s going to explore a trade for Grubauer so he can do his thing. There is no doubt that the Capitals don’t win the Metropolitan Division without the stellar play of number 31 this past season. You need two good goalies in this day and age in the NHL to make it to the postseason. If Grubauer, who is a restricted free agent departs via trade, there could be a big dropoff to third string, Phoenix Copley. 2015 1st round pick Ilya Samsonov will be coming over to North America to play this fall, but he’ll need time in Hershey to become acclimated to the smaller rink. Bottom line, the best scenario for the Caps is to keep Grubauer, but potential salary cap room and a good trade return will likely be too hard to pass up. Goaltending coach Scott Murray and his staff, to include Olie Kolzig, will need to really get the other goalies in the system ready quickly should the German keeper move on.
Jay Beagle, when asked why the Caps won this year, pointed out that the Capitals “built their game all year and peaked at the right time. In past years we peaked in December and Janaury and then tried to hold onto it.” When questioned about Ovechkin not letting go of the Cup very much since they won, he stated that Ovi is invited to his Cup celebration, but he doubted the Gr8 would come to the Beagle farm. On Trotz, number 83 said “He’s always been a great coach since he’s been here, has brought in great people around him, and I feel like we have been the most prepared team in the league.” The unrestricted free agent, who has now won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and NHL level, hasn’t had any contract discussions yet and stated “obviously, I have to wait until the big guys get settled first” before receiving an offer. The hard working total team guy stated he could wait until after July 1st and that he’d leave things up to MacLellan. When I asked him if he’d leave if some team came along and threw money at him, said he’d have to see what was best for his family. The fourth line center who is great on faceoffs and the PK made $1.75M in each of the last three seasons.
As I wrote in my Cup winning blog, players such as Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky really upped their compete level, especially on the physical side of the house, and were important factors in the Caps playoff run. Burakovsky told El-Bashir that after three hand injuries over the past couple of years that he plans to have a conversation with CCM this summer about getting more substantial gloves. He told Tarik that two of the injuries could’ve been avoided with more protection. Washington will need each of these three guys to continue to progress, as they’ve done so far under Lane Lambert’s tutelage, if they are going to have a chance to repeat. Connolly, who for two years has confidently told me that the Caps have a very good team, summed up why this Championship ultimately happened for this squad.
“It was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really said we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.”
That quote from Connolly really summed up this team, who will forever be legends around this area, in a nutshell.
Notes: Matt Niskanen, when asked about all of the celebrations, said “It was great to see Brooks Orpik let his hair down.” So many players mentioned how business like number 44 is and that they don’t often get to see that side of one of the biggest leaders on the Caps…Alex Chiasson, who scored a huge goal to open the scoring in the game six triumph that closed out the Penguins, was hoping to come back to the Caps next season, especially given his close friendship that he has developed with Ovechkin, which apparently started from playing cards on the plane together…Beagle is leaving town on Thursday and noted it would be good to get back to reality…I’ll post a full transcript of my exclusive one on one session with Connolly out at WNST.NET on Thursday night…Backstrom, when asked about the team possibly breaking up, “It sucks, but when you look back on this 10, 15 years from now, we’ll always have this special group.”
Photo credit to Jacquelyn Martin of the Associated Press.