ARLINGTON, Va. – Barring a complete collapse, nothing the Washington Capitals do from the time the puck drops on the 2016-17 season until April will mean much of anything in the long run.
Over the past nine seasons, there have been plenty of trophies: three for Alex Ovechkin as MVP and six for the most goals, one for Braden Holtby as top goaltender, one each for Bruce Boudreau and Barry Trotz as coach of the year and two Presidents' Trophies for the team having the most points in the regular season. Eight times the Capitals have made the playoffs and eight times they've failed to make it past the second round.
The Stanley Cup is still very much within reach, especially with Ovechkin, Holtby and centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov in the prime of their careers. But with key players Karl Alzner, Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, the salary cap hanging over their heads and the uncertainty that follows, this is arguably the Capitals' last, best chance to win the championship they looked to be building toward for more than a decade.
"When you get older, then the more think about that a little more," Alzner said. "I would love to just win so you can stop worrying about getting that win."
Last spring, after dominating the NHL for 82 games, the Capitals beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round before falling in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Ovechkin, who just turned 31 and has led the league in goals for four consecutive seasons, brushed it off as, "Last year is last year," though the sting of that loss stuck with players through the summer.
Back at the rink for training camp, it was hard to deny a desire to fast-forward several months. But another first-in-the-NHL finish guarantees nothing, as the Capitals know all too well.
"It'd be nice to just jump back into June or May and say, 'OK, let's have another crack at it,' but that's not the way it works," right winger Tom Wilson said. "The tough part is the 82-game season: getting yourself into the position to have success, and then when you're there, to have success at the right time."
After the Capitals played their best hockey early and midseason and the Penguins hit their stride for the stretch run and the playoffs, center Jay Beagle thought a lot about peaking at the right time. If he and his teammates learned any lesson from last season it's that they need to be at their best at playoff time, something that hasn't been the case so far.
"The playoffs is about scoring big goals at big times," said Williams, who won the Cup twice with the Los Angeles Kings. "The margin of error's very small. You don't want to be asking yourself why things didn't go right. ... You want to be asking yourself why it went right. We have a chip on our shoulder and we have a point to prove to everybody."
Here are some other things to watch with the Capitals this season:
Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, started 66 games last season and 72 in 2014-15. Expect him to play less and backup Philipp Grubauer more as Trotz, goalie coach Mitch Korn and the Capitals reduce Holtby's workload so he peaks for the playoffs like the New York Rangers did with Henrik Lundqvist a few years ago.
Even though he led Washington with 77 points and was an All-Star, Kuznetsov had just one goal and 12 assists in his final 31 games, including the playoffs, and must show better endurance over a long season. The 24-year-old Russian is due a big raise as a restricted free agent and can prove he's an elite player.
BLUE LINE DEPTH
Alzner, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen are Washington's top three defensemen and then there's a drop off. Brooks Orpik is 36 and better in a third-pairing role, so the Capitals may count on Dmitry Orlov making the leap and taking on more responsibilities.
Backstrom chaffed at Presidents' Trophy talk late last season after winning it in 2009 preceded a first-round exit. After winning it again last year, it's not like the Capitals want to lose more games, but the balance between going hard in the regular season and pacing themselves warrants monitoring to see how it affects their place in the standings.
ELLER, ELLER, ELLER
Acquiring Lars Eller from Montreal gives Washington a solid third-line center behind Backstrom and Kuznetsov and could make it look more like Pittsburgh's top-nine forward group. The Capitals didn't copycat the Penguins in many ways, but they want to have three scoring lines, and Eller is a big key to that happening.
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