The best part of the Capitals’ preseason has arrived — its conclusion. They survived a slate of seven exhibition games largely unscathed; no front-line performers ought to be missing from Saturday’s opening night here against Carolina. For a team not far removed from serious springtime turmoil and torment, camp this fall has been an oasis of tranquility. No labor strife/holdouts, no notable injuries much disrupting the coaching staff’s prepared plan of business, no extraordinary push from prospects or free agents to unseat veteran incumbents. All those cut early were expected to be cut early; all those still impressing were expected to still be impressing. The dullness of the exhibition games is par for the NHL’s September course. Capitals management is I imagine quite content with how camp played out.
Camp convened with perhaps only one roster spot genuinely open and available among the top nine forward spots (second line center) (or is it first?). It was pursued by a small assembly of center ice men who came to be known as ‘The Bubble Boys.’ But even with this storyline the drama didn’t build greatly, as Mathieu Perreault emerged early and decisively as the top performer. He led the Caps in scoring during the preseason. And after Sunday night’s camp-concluding exhibition game against Chicago, Bruce Boudreau said of no. 85, “I think our best player all of camp was Perreault. I think he played with energy every night.” On the radio last night, Mike Vogel was similarly impressed: “He’s been consistently good throughout the preseason regardless of which line he’s been on.”
The forward ranks offered this camp its exclusive intrigue, and that was muted drama. On the blueline, the top six were set before camp started, and likewise, the Capitals’ net was set before training camp’s first conditioning whistle blew.
This drama-free state of affairs was by design. In the middle of the offseason the GM overhauled his roster heavily for size and grit and experience up front on the wings, some character and a former captain’s experience and leadership to center the fourth line, and then the ultimate offseason coup — Tomas Vokoun. Offseason changer, that. Training camp quickly became more a dress rehearsal than an audition.
Camp’s top storylines:
- As important as McPhee’s offseason roster moves were, it was what the GM did at his office keyboard while the wounds of another short postseason were still raw that likely set in motion the business-like tenor of this training camp. At camp’s dawning the Washington Post reported that early in the offseason that Capitals’ players were issued a written warning about changed expectations for fitness for duty come September:
” . . . players received letters early this summer warning them to expect an Albert Haynesworth-like timed fitness test with controlled recovery intervals at the start of camp.’
That was George McPhee the enforcer enforcing a culture change for his hockey club. Overdue, in my opinion. May it be the last time Albert Haynesworth’s name is evoked in connection with the Capitals.
- More on the conditioning/work ethic/maturation front: Ben Raby, writing for the Toronto Star, got captain Ovechkin to concede that his 2010-11 showing wasn’t up to par on a number of fronts. He approached last season looking past its regular season toward the postseason, and sacrificed his conditioning in the process. His owner took note:
“He tried something different,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis said. “He wanted to work his way into shape so that he would peak during the playoffs.”
Indeed, Ovechkin admitted that all year he “just wanted to be ready for the playoffs.
“I was starting, like, in the middle (of the season) to be in shape.”
- Vitally important testimony attesting to the Capitals fall-time fitness arrived at the dawn of training camp, from team strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish. “I already know [Ovi's] in shape; I can tell. “We’ve worked several times on the ice and, without a doubt, he’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen him.”
- The kiss or death . . . or well considered wooing?: The Hockey News tabbed the Caps as 2012 Stanley Cup champions.
- The GM sure likes his hockey club. At CapsCon, he told the assembled thousands that this year’s squad reminded him very much of the ’97-’98 club — the one that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. “It’s going to be a hard team to play against. Maybe not as offensive, but more physical.” Superb coverage of CapsCon from the Examiner’s Michael Hoffman here.
- If the Caps hoped that Vokoun would inspire Michal Neuvirth it appears early on to have worked. Neuvy was especially strong this preseason. There may not be the 60-20 split in games between the two that a lot of folks thought about three weeks ago.
- McPhee also chimed in on realignment, all but stating that 2011-12 would be, mercifully, the final season for the Southeast division. What it’s looking like now: two 15-team conferences with 8- and 7-team divisions within. Apparently a popular plan would see the Capitals reunited with the New York clubs and the Flyers in a division. I say, why go halfway — get the best rivalry in all of hockey, and one of the best in all of sports, rekindled as well. Anyway, when it’s official, OFB I think will host a realignment party in town, where we’ll give away NASCAR posters and coupons for Waffle House. And certainly we’ll have a Gary Bettman pinata.
- Camp standout: Dmitri Orlov. Still with the team partially because of John Erskine’s rehab, but also because he’s played with poise and impact that belie his years this preseason. Stock seriously on the rise.
- Camp standout, on the air: John Walton. If you haven’t given much thought to following Caps hockey on the radio in recent years, you should now.
- One of the biggest stirs in camp perhaps came with the team in Chicago for a game, and when red, white, and blue old timers returned to Kettler for the organization’s first-ever alumni game. Old timers Alan May and Kevin Kaminski drew blood from dropped gloves. I got a good chuckle from learning that Killer had earned the first-ever Alumni Game’s first-ever first star of the game designation.
- Don’t overlook this sidebar to the new season: the trading of Semyon Varlamov delivered to the Caps Colorado’s first-rounder next June. McPhee really likes the ’12 draft — it’s much stronger than this past June’s, he intimated at CapsCon. You might want to take a look at where Adam Proteau has the ‘Lanche finishing out West this season.
What might this season’s lines look like?
Ovi – Backstrom – Brouwer
Semin – MJ90/Perreault – Knuble
Chimera – Laich – Ward
Hendricks – Halpern – Beagle
Love those third and fourth lines.