Across the Mid-Atlantic winds of change seemed to sweep away summer last night. Vacationing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I took the dog for a walk this morning in layers of clothing, attire I hadn’t needed since early last spring. It felt good to be so bundled up. As recently as yesterday afternoon I wasn’t so stoked to write about rinks. This morning, perhaps from the magic of meteorological change, I am.
Still: no summer has proven to be as ill-equipped to heal a previous hockey season’s hurt as this past one was for me. Time is supposed to heal all hurt, but as recently as August I listened closely to reflections from departed heart-and-soul Capitals’ veterans, hardly axe-grinders, and longstanding concerns I had were renewed from their views. Still, this morning, there is something healing in the air.
Hockey returns in full force this weekend, with the start of training camp, and it brings a host of hotly talked about questions related to the state of the Capitals. For the Hockey News, at least, all is well. We though who’ve lived long in Washington know better.
The Washington Capitals drafted Alexander Ovechkin no. 1 overall in 2004. That summer, I never imagined that seven years later we’d be where we are today: still disappointed.
Not just unsuccessful, but profoundly disappointed.
No one member of a hockey team, not even one of the sport’s richest captains, is singularly responsible for the premature demise of his club, but Ovi himself knows — and embraces — the unprecedented role he plays as Ambassador of Hockey in the nation’s capital. The draft lottery luck that delivered this franchise-altering talent was meant to alter miserable springs in these parts, and to date that hasn’t happened. We’re still wrestling with why, and suddenly an athlete’s calendar seems of essence.
Ovi celebrates his 26th birthday this weekend. To most observers, he’s lodged in the prime of his professional hockey career. Only twice in his six NHL seasons has he failed to record 100 points, but 2010-11, he bottomed out: 32 goals and just 85 points. By his own admission he wasn’t in shape, and for most of last season he looked slow. In 2007-08, Ovechkin scored 65 goals. We do have to ponder the possibility that we’ve seen already his very best hockey, that it’s behind him. If that’s true, what are the implications for the Caps?
Capitals’ players report for the start of training camp this weekend, and there are for me five overriding questions confronting this hockey club as it enters what may be the most important season in franchise history. I say that because one more season of conspicuous failure is virtually certain to inaugurate sweeping changes to the Capitals’ core (and perhaps beyond), the very core most of us believed would lead the team toward Stanley Cup contention.
Season-defining questions, in order of importance:
- Will we see the return of Ovi 1.0? I think we know the brand of hockey Ovi likes best to play, and here I’m not talking about systems and such. If this team fails again I’d at least like to see Capitals’ opponents pay a heavy price in victory. The Capitals of especially the past couple of seasons haven’t been all that tough to play against. They were, comparatively speaking, when Ovi was a one-man wrecking ball, dishing out thunderous, glass-shaking (and clean) hits. And opponents — even big-bodied blueliners — gave him deference. By about year five of his career it became vogue in media circles to opine that Ovechkin’s brute physical style wasn’t suited to last in this league. Well, I’ve seen the alternative — Ovi in a trap, Ovi in a hybrid trap, Ovi floating, Ovi manning the power play point, and I’m underwhelmed. Ovi is at his best (and most exciting) when he skates as the proverbial bull in a china shop. Bruce Boudreau suggested this summer that he will again tweak his system to allow for a greater attack ethos. So: free Ovi in the process, I say, and make our opponents pay. And roster additions on the order of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward bolster the hopes for a more physical brand of hockey in red this season.
- Is Ovi truly ready and fit to lead? There is the risk of making too much of the parting comments from Matt Bradley, ones echoed in their entirety days later by Dave Steckel, but there is also the risk of ignoring them altogether. Brads intimated that Ovi’s leadership — on and off the ice — required maturation. We ought to see if there’s been any if he reports fit for duty this weekend.
- Will there be a culture of accountability? Elusive in recent seasons: Sixty minutes of committed, character play. The bench got shortened, Brads suggested, even when front-line performers weren’t performing. Perhaps worse: there was a tiered system of accountability with practices, too — big-money guys were gone from grunt-work under suspicious circumstances. The head coach has to address this, beginning this weekend. Call it a lunch-pail ethos, call it crafting a blue-collar identity — I call it skating nightly with pride for the crest you wear — but the Capitals this season need to intimidate with work ethic and passion. They need to give Washington hockey fans 60 minutes of effort. I’m of the school that suggests that such commitment bears directly on what hockey in spring looks like. Accountability, too, confronts the coach. Perhaps Bruce Boudreau, unlike a few of his younger new coaching peers, has had to learn on the job in the NHL. His evolution into a quality bench maestro must arrive now. There simply can be no more game-costing screwups with line changes, no more deer-in-headlight looks as momentum sways the other way in the postseason.
- Is the Capitals contending core tired of failure? Are these highly skilled guys through talking tough with training camp t-shirt slogans and willing to pay the price required of NHL success? If they are, I suspect we’ll see fewer Tweet pics of night-before-games jaunts about town slinging back the Jagermeister.
- And last but not least, the ever-enduring enigma, Sasha Semin. We know what Matt Bradley thinks of him — the same as a good many Capitals’ fans. I listened all summer long to friends in media swear to me that Alexander Semin had to be traded for this team to prosper. I swore to them that (1) even if they were right, his contract (and reputation) is untradable; and (2) that George McPhee, aware of how difficult it was for this team to score last season, and how conspicuously it struggled with the power play, was going to cast his lot one last time with the world-class but oh so infuriating right wing. Alexander Semin is one of hockey’s greatest mysteries. But in the fall of 2011, it’s clear the Caps are going to live with that mystery at least one more season.
These are my big-picture wonderings heading into a new season. What are yours?