Less than eight months ago, the Washington Capitals hastily convened for a brief and hastily arranged training camp of less than a week in length and with no preseason games against fellow NHL clubs. With new coach Adam Oates at the helm and the team needing to learn Oates’ new system on the fly, the Caps arranged an exhibition scrimmage against their ECHL Reading farm club in preparation for the truncated 2012-13 season, and they played their season opening game in Tampa less than a week after the start of camp.
This time around, training camp takes on a more normal and less hurried format.
The Capitals commence training camp for their 39th NHL season on Thursday with a whopping total of 70 players – 39 forwards, 24 defensemen and seven goaltenders – in attendance. Players will be broken into three groups, with each group taking to the ice on Thursday and Friday in separate sessions.
Washington hopes that a full camp replete with preseason games will help it to avoid a second straight slow start. The Caps struggled to a 2-8-1 start last season, but finished on a furious 15-2-2 run to secure a sixth straight Stanley Cup playoff berth.
“We had a [new] system where you really need to be on top of your game and in the right spots or it doesn’t work,” notes Caps’ center Nicklas Backstrom. “After a while we learned the system, we played better and we took off. Right now, we’re the same group of guys. Hopefully, we’ll start right away this year.”
Having to assemble quickly and having to assimilate Oates’ new system proved to be difficult for the Capitals, and it wasn’t something that Oates saw coming, either.
“I guess our start,” says Oates, when asked if there were any surprises to his first season as the team’s bench boss. “I think the toughest thing was it’s your first [head-coaching] job. You’re coming off the finals with New Jersey [as an assistant coach]. I had a plan from what I learned from [Devils head coach] Pete DeBoer as to how to go through camp and try to teach and talk and how long it would take in my mind. And obviously with the lockout it really affected it. I thought we’d be okay, and then everything that could go wrong went wrong in the first 10 games.”
As dim as things were for Washington over the first 11 games of 2012-13, there were many bright spots for the Caps over the final three-quarters of the campaign. One of those bright spots was the team buying into and latching onto Oates’ system of play.
“As soon as that system started clicking it was fun hockey,” says Caps center Jay Beagle. “I hope it was exciting for the fans. We know it works. It’s a system that I think everyone on the team likes. Everyone likes to be able to go. It’s a skating system. In certain situations, you can fly. We’ve got some fast guys on the team and it’s a fun system to play. When everyone is on the same page with it and everyone buys into it, we’re a tough team to beat. We saw that at the end of the season and in the playoffs.”
Getting to the playoffs in a short season after such a dismal start is something that Oates believes will aid his team in the long haul.
“I would say the fact that we turned it around I think will be a good thing in that over the course of an 82-game season, you’re going to have some hiccups,” relates Oates. “And now we have something to draw on as a group. We had adversity and we got through it. Some guys had some great years and we developed some relationships as a group. The guys know how we’re going to coach. We’re not going to change the way we approach the rink everyday; they know what to expect. I think they appreciated that. Hopefully that allows us to keep growing as a group.”
Players generally don’t look forward to training camp; it’s seen as somewhat of a necessary evil. This time around, camp is being greeted a bit more warmly than usual by many of the players. The team’s January struggles may have helped reinforce the importance of a full camp.
“I’m looking forward to it,” says Beagle. “With the short training camp last year and obviously with learning the new system and having a new coach and all that, it was hard. It hurt us in the beginning. I think with the extra time in training camp this year, it’s going to help us. It’s only going to help us. It will be good to get back into it and get a feel for the system again without having to go into a regular season game right away.”
The word “system” seemed to find its way into virtually every written piece on the Caps last season, whether in ink or in pixels. Oates wants the focus to shift away from the system this season, and would like to see the “s” word go away.
“I think it’s there and we’ll concentrate on other things,” he says. “I don’t even want to use the word system in my interviews. I don’t even want to use that word. We’re going to use other words, right?
“With the guys, we know how we’re supposed to play. We’ve seen it, good and bad. I want to focus on them I want every individual to know what we expect of them and how they can continue to get better as players. If I can become a better coach, [assistant coach] Calle Johansson can become a better coach and Foz [assistant coach Blaine Forsythe] becomes a better coach, and they can become a little bit better as players, then we’re all going in the right direction. Sooner or later, you’ve got to believe that it will work.”
So, okay, no more “s” word. Will there be other words?
“Yeah, there will be other words.”
What are they?
“I’ve been writing them down.”
Yes, but what are they?
“I identity would be one of them,” Oates reveals. “Pace. Decisions. When do you make the right decision? What’s the decision here? What are you supposed to do here; what’s your thought process here? The system should be automatic, but within every system there are reads. There are lots of words. I just want to stop you guys from talking about the system.”
We’ll see what we can do to accommodate that reasonable request.
After just two camp practices, one of those three groups of players will fly to Belleville, Ont. for the Capitals’ preseason opener against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. That contest marks the first of eight exhibition games for Washington in preparation for the team’s season-opening game against the Blackhawks in Chicago on Oct. 1.
Washington’s eight tune-up tilts will be played in a span of 15 days and will include road games in Belleville, Philadelphia (Sept. 16), Baltimore (Sept. 17), Boston (Sept. 23) and Chicago (Sept. 28).
The Capitals will host three preseason games at Verizon Center, facing Chicago (Sept. 20), Nashville (Sept. 25) and Philadelphia (Sept. 27).
Washington will play half of its preseason schedule prior to the start of AHL Hershey’s 2013 training camp. The Bears start camp in Hershey on Sept. 23.
In addition to those eight preseason games, the Caps will round out a busy month of September with an alumni game at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Sept. 19 and will host the fourth annual Capitals Convention on Sat. Sept. 21.
Training camp was 23 days long under the previous collective bargaining agreement, but this year’s Caps camp will last just 18 days. The Caps will have two scheduled off-days during this fall’s camp, on Wed. Sept. 18 and Thu. Sept. 26.