General manager George McPhee believes the Washington Capitals have enough talent on the ice to contend for a Stanley Cup.
His biggest concern heading into Saturday night’s opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning is that his team will have had only six practices and a scrimmage to learn new coach Adam Oates’ system.
With a lineup that includes two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals have been Stanley Cup contenders for a while now, but they’ve yet to claim the title that once felt so inevitable. They went 42-32-8 last season to finish second in the Southeast Division, ending a four-year run as division champs.
“We have a real solid team,” McPhee said. “We’re in good shape. We have a complete team.”
What the Capitals do not have is time on their side, as players are going to have to learn Oates’ system on the fly.
“It’s very tough,” Oates said. “Communication’s vital. There’s going to be mistakes. But every system has mistakes.”
Winger Matt Hendricks said the Capitals’ first day back together since losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the New York Rangers was like going back to school, but with a new teacher.
“We’re going be a skating team within a very defensive structure,” he said. “It’s an exciting brand of hockey. We’re going to force teams to turn the puck over.”
The biggest change to the casual observer at camp has been the placement of Ovechkin, who has been skating at right wing instead of his customary position on the left side. It’s an experiment suggested by Oates to create a different look – one of the raps on Ovechkin last year was that his moves to the net had become so familiar that defensemen had figured them out. The captain had 38 goals and a career-low 65 points last season.
“Everybody knows Ovi is to come from the left side,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Maybe it changes the situation a little bit for the other team, how they’re going to play him and stuff.”
Over the summer, McPhee mostly concentrated on keeping the team intact, but there was one major addition – second-line center Mike Ribeiro – and one major departure – enigmatic winger Alexander Semin.
The Capitals have at times appeared overloaded at goaltender during the last few seasons, only to have injuries or other circumstances leave the team lacking in front of the net. They can knock on wood – or ice – and proclaim themselves in good shape, at least for now, based on 23-year-old Braden Holtby’s performance in last year’s playoffs.
Holtby, who had a 1.95 goals-against average in 14 postseason games after appearing in just seven regular-season contests, got to stay in game shape by playing for Hershey in the AHL during the lockout. His competition is 24-year-old Michal Neuvirth, and both should get plenty of starts in the cramped schedule to come.
Scheme-wise, Oates falls somewhere in between the offensive-minded Bruce Boudreau and defense-first Dale Hunter. The players had to overhaul their thinking when Boudreau was fired and replaced by Hunter last November after an early-season slump, so changing gears should be nothing new.
“I’m excited,” Ovechkin said of Oates’ system. “Everybody involved so you can create.”
Still, Troy Brouwer admitted that the Caps are “at a little bit of disadvantage” with a new coach, but the winger said he’s not worried despite the compact 48-game schedule.
“We’ll probably have some mistakes, but we’ve got smart guys in here,” said Brouwer, who scored five of his 18 goals last season against Tampa Bay, with Washington going 3-2-1.
One of those guys is defenseman Tom Poti, whom the Capitals recalled on Friday from AHL Hershey. Poti has not appeared in an NHL game since Jan. 12, 2011, due to a series of groin injuries, but he’s back after it initially looked like he may retire.
The Lightning (38-36-8) are hoping for a return to the playoffs after missing out on postseason play last season, one year after reaching the East finals.
“Getting into the playoffs, that’s our goal here,” star Steven Stamkos said. “We want to be a playoff team. It’s going to be a different year. It’s a sprint. You’ve got to get off to a good start.”
Stamkos had an NHL-best 60 goals last season, with five against the Capitals. He also has a league-leading 156 scores since 2009-10 – 36 more than Ovechkin, who ranks second on that list.
Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, holdovers from Tampa Bay’s 2004 Stanley Cup championship team, provide a solid nucleus. Newcomers include goalie Anders Lindback and defensemen Sami Salo and Matt Carle.
Lindback, who was acquired from Nashville in the offseason, was 5-8-0 with a 2.42 GAA in 16 games for the Predators last season. It is uncertain if he or Mathieu Garon, who went 23-16-4 with a 2.85 GAA for the Lightning in 2011-12, will start the opener.
“Obviously, we want to get into the playoffs,” said St. Louis, who was second on the team a year ago with 25 goals and 74 points. “Get better as the year goes on, and be at the top of our game when playoffs start. I’m excited about our team, obviously.”
Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher expects the fine-tuning to be somewhat off for all teams early on, but doesn’t feel intensity will be an issue.
“I feel that 48 games is plenty of time to have some ups and some downs, and to manage them,” Boucher said. “I think there’s going to be ups and downs like every season, but obviously you don’t want to have a lull that lasts too long because you’ll probably be out of the playoffs.”