WASHINGTON – When the Washington Capitals open the season Friday night, it will be hard to spot an unfamiliar face.
Nearly every Capitals player who takes the ice against the Atlanta Thrashers either played for Washington last year or has played for the team’s AHL affiliate in Hershey.
The only exceptions are Marcus Johansson, a 2009 first-round draft pick who spent last season in Sweden, and enforcer D.J. King, acquired in a July trade with the St. Louis Blues.
The other sort-of new face is Matt Hendricks, but he played for Hershey in 2006-07 before spending two seasons with the Colorado Avalanche.
Otherwise, it’s the tried-and-true crew featuring Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green—along with the emerging young guys from the minors, many of whom the Capitals drafted themselves.
“We’re in a lot of ways lucky, I guess,” general manager George McPhee said. “We came up with this plan years ago, and fortunately ownership stood by it. In a lot of cities, a lot of teams, ownership does not have the patience. We’re starting Friday night with 11 of our own first-round picks in the lineup. The league average is four. The closest team to us has seven.
“We put this plan together and we’re in pretty good shape. It’s a good team, they’re our guys, and hopefully it leads to a Cup one of these days.”
McPhee saw no reason to pick apart the team that accumulated an NHL-high 121 points last season, even if the Capitals did suffer yet another early playoff defeat by blowing a 3-1 first-round series lead before falling to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games.
If nothing else, Washington should lead the league in continuity.
“Very, very rare,” veteran defenceman Tom Poti said. “There’s always at least five-to-seven new guys on every team I’ve ever been on over the years. I think it’s a good thing. We all know each other. We’re used to each other. The less new guys, the better.”
A series of savvy drafts have stocked the Capitals’ minor league system, so there’s not much need to look for outside help. Hershey has won the last two AHL titles, and there’s little doubt that several of the players Washington sent back to the minors this week in the final cuts would have made NHL rosters in other cities. When Washington needed to call up players last season because of injuries, the team kept winning.
“One of the reasons we were strong last year is there was never really a dip,” said coach Bruce Boudreau, who was also promoted from Hershey when he took over the Capitals’ bench in November 2007. “Guys are NHL-ready when they come up.”
Washington had to endure three last-place finishes while pursuing owner Ted Leonsis’ strategy of building slowly through the draft. While the Capitals are expected to top the standings again this season and make the playoffs for a fourth straight year, the payoff only comes if they can break their run of post-season misery.
“In some ways, I don’t care about whether we win our division or Presidents’ Trophy or anything else,” McPhee said. “It’s about making the playoffs and having a good playoff run, and how we get there is less important than getting there and doing well this year.”