Less than 30 hours after the NHL and NHLPA came to an agreement on a new CBA that will end the ongoing 2012-13 NHL lockout, a handful of Caps players convened to take the ice for an informal practice on Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
By Tuesday another handful of players had trickled into town, including captain Alex Ovechkin. About a dozen Caps hit the Kettler sheet on Tuesday.
While the league and the NHLPA await final ratification of the new CBA – a process that could take the better part of this week – the dates of the start of training camp and opening night are still up in the air. Once both sides have signed off on the CBA, teams can conduct training camp and release their schedules for the upcoming 48-game season.
In the meantime, the Caps’ coaching staff is back at work with a more urgent sense of purpose. They don’t know when camp will start or what the schedule will look like yet, but they know they’ll be short on time and they won’t have the luxury of any exhibition games once camp does finally get underway.
“First impression would be it’s going to be more of a track meet,” says Caps head coach Adam Oates of the upcoming season, “not as much time to figure out your team, not as many highs and lows. But 48 games is still a lot of games.”
Losing streaks will take on added significance in a shortened schedule, and winning streaks will propel teams further up the standings ladder. The regular season is expected to run into late April, with a trade deadline likely sometime in the first week of April.
Oates and assistants Calle Johansson and Tim Hunter have previous experience with the 48-game slate. They were all still active as players in the NHL when the 1994-95 campaign was truncated to 48 games.
“You get over losses in a hurry,” says Hunter. “You’re going to have to because it’s a sprint. Every day is an important day and the importance of putting last night’s game behind you and looking ahead to tomorrow because you’ve got to play every other night a 48-game schedule and it’s going to be compressed.”
Oates and his staff will also need to introduce a new system to the Caps, and they won’t have any exhibition games in which to measure the players’ progress in assimilation.
“As of right now,” says Oates, “we still don’t even have a time frame in terms of how long we have. One of the factors is some guys have played games [in Europe or the AHL] and some guys have been off since the playoffs. So how are we going to get everybody coordinated in terms of conditioning? It’s going to be impossible. On top of that, there is going to be a lot of mental stuff because you’re going through the emotions of guys who are excited to be back, they’ve got to learn some new stuff and we’ve got to try to teach it without wearing them out because we’ve got to play soon. We’re going to keep talking about it and try to figure out the best way to implement it.”
Ovechkin returned to D.C. from Russia on Monday afternoon, and linemate Nicklas Backstrom showed up at Kettler earlier in the day. The two longtime linemates had been playing together for Dynamo in Russia’s KHL.
Hunter believes that having had two of the team’s best players playing competitive hockey during the lockout will benefit the Caps going forward. Both Washington goaltenders also played during the lockout, Braden Holtby with AHL Hershey and Michal Neuvirth in his native Czech Republic.
“We’re fortunate because our better players have played and our goalies have played,” says Hunter. “That’s a really key. Our goalies are going to be sharp, and Ovi and Nick have played so that’s a key as well. They’re in game-ready shape, and those are the guys who are game-breakers. Same with the goalies, and they’re both on top of their games and playing well. I think we have an advantage there. You look at some older teams that have older guys that haven’t played and an older goaltender that hasn’t played and they’re going to be in trouble.”
Johansson believes that the importance of good special teams play – and, as a corollary, sound discipline – will be magnified in a shortened season. During the 48-game season of 1994-95, the Capitals featured the league’s sixth best power play and seventh best penalty killing outfit.
“I think we had a great, great power play that year,” recalls Johansson. “Special teams are going to be really important, that and staying out of the box. It might be more mental now. You’ve got to think every game. It’s more like a chess game now than when you have a long season.”
Whenever camp does get underway, the initial challenges facing Oates and his staff will be to indoctrinate the players into the new system and get them out of the gates smoothly.
“You can’t panic,” says Johansson. “It’s still 48 games. It’s going to be a little tougher. We’ve got a new coach and a new system. Guys are going to have to be aware and try to absorb as much as they can. They can’t just take it for granted and keep playing. They’ve got to really focus now. That’s the major thing for our team, I think, with a new coach and a new system.
“I think we’re going to have to convince the guys and prove to them that the system that Oatsey wants to bring in is actually very simple and a fun system. Make the guys have fun and like it. I don’t think that should be a problem. But that’s our job; to make them like it. It’s a major thing. If you like something you do, it’s easy to do it.”