“I’ve never experienced a start to a season like this,” Karl Alzner said after the Capitals’ 3-2 loss Tuesday to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Capitals, however briefly, have the worst record in hockey right now, although they’ve played three more games than the Calgary Flames, who are second to last.
The regression has been across the board. The offense does not produce. The defense does not prevent. The goalies can’t put 60 good minutes together, either. At first, special teams were killing them. On Tuesday, they won the special teams’ battles and still lost by a goal.
The core of this team has been there long enough to see the other side of the curve. This, despite a rookie head coach and a new system, is not an inexperienced roster.
This is a team that took the Stanley Cup champions on last year in a playoff series and beat them. This is a team that took an adept New York Rangers club and forced a Game 7. This is a team that has had goaltenders practically do headstands in playoffs in recent years to help contribute.
Eric Fehr said something that made me pause in a post-practice interview Saturday. We were talking about balancing out the adrenaline rush of a rivalry with keeping focused on the ice, and he told me, as part of that conversation, “We’ve got a pretty old team.”
He moved on, but I didn’t. I know there’s been talk of how the ‘Young Guns’ aren’t that young anymore, but it was interesting to hear a player refer to it so casually, like it was embedded in the team psyche.
“We are an old team,” Fehr said. “If you look around, we don’t have a lot of rookies on our team. I don’t even know if we have a rookie on our team this year…I guess Kundy [Tomas Kundratek] right now, but that’s about it, so for the most part we’ve got guys that have been in the league for a number of years, and I guess the way this league’s getting younger and younger, that would make us an old team.”
This has not been a graceful aging. Being an old team isn’t inherent to being either bad or good. But for the Capitals, it’s particularly poignant, because they’re far from where a team that’s grown old together should be.
This team has made the postseason for five consecutive years. And ever since 2010, the questions have piled up faster than the answers.
Fehr is right. In past years, there were players being developed at this NHL level–first the young guns, then players like Marcus Johansson, or defensive pairings like Alzner and John Carlson. Green goalies became the Capitals’ staple, and three of them–Varlamov, Neuvirth and Holtby–showed they were NHL-worthy. But now, the team is playing with an even worse record.
Perhaps, in 10 or so games, things will have clicked, and people will be able to read this column and laugh. The special teams were practically perfect last night. There were moments in games where you could feel the comeback energy, only to have the actual comeback never materialize.
The Caps’ story is a simple reminder that making good history–trying to be that first team to win Lord Stanley for a franchise–is hard.