WASHINGTON — Missing the playoffs for the first time in a while jarred the Washington Capitals into fundamental changes. New general manager. New coach, this time someone with actual NHL head coaching experience. A big free agency day in which they pilfered a pair of defensemen from the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
The constant? Alex Ovechkin.
The three-time league MVP remains the cornerstone of the franchise, the player without whom no one could imagine a serious run at that elusive Stanley Cup. For the Capitals to be successful, they need to get the most out of the 29-year-old Russian captain whose leadership and all-around game has yet to catch up to his ability to score gobs of goals.
The Capitals' season, therefore, will revolve around the chemistry established between Ovechkin and coach Barry Trotz, just as it did on the bonds — some stronger than others — that existed between No. 8 and previous coaches Adam Oates, Dale Hunter and Bruce Boudreau.
Ovechkin was the ultimate good news-bad news player last season. He led the NHL with 51 goals, but his plus-minus of minus-35 was third-worst in the league.
"If Ovi is willing to listen," Trotz said, "he's going to have a chance to do some great team things. And he is willing to listen."
Ovechkin has seemed receptive, but this is still the honeymoon phase for the new regime of Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan. Trotz has an advantage over his recent predecessors, however: Those 15 years he spent coaching the Nashville Predators means he knows what he's doing from the get-go.
"I think that sometimes the new coaches are always trying to find themselves, and that can be confusing for the players," defenseman Mike Green said. "That's the great thing about Barry. Barry's been around forever."
Here are some things to notice as the Capitals prepare to open their season against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 9:
LEFT WING, BUT NOT RADICAL: Trotz's first major move was to switch Ovechkin back to left wing. Ovechkin played mostly right wing under Oates and has proved he can score from either side, but the left side is his natural position. "He's better on the right side a little bit defensively, but his talent is on the left side," Trotz said. "And so if I'm going to maximize his talent, I need to get him on the left side."
HOLTBY'S JOB: The Capitals have finally settled on Braden Holtby as their No. 1 goaltender. Holtby has never started more than 45 games in a season, and last season he was second-fiddle at various times to Michal Neuvirth, Philipp Grubauer or Jaroslav Halak. Neuvrith and Halak are gone, Grubauer will play in the AHL, and free agent signing Justin Peters is the clear backup. "Obviously it's nice that people put trust in me," Holtby said. "That's what you want as a professional athlete."
THICK BLUE LINE: The Capitals raided free agents Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik from Pittsburgh with deals totaling more than $65 million. For good measure, they also added ex-Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden. With returnees John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Green, the days of merry-go-round on the blue line should be over. "It's important to have chemistry with your partner," Green said. "And it was very tough to develop that (last year) when you have a new partner every other night."
PLEASE, SOMEONE FILL THIS VACANCY: As sure as pucks go into nets, the Capitals are having trouble deciding on a second-line center. The position bedevils the team on an annual basis, and it remains a toss-up once again. A trio of youngsters — Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson — were vying for the spot before Trotz decided to insert veteran Brooks Laich into the mix. Laich has held down the spot at various times in recent seasons. "To bed honest, I still consider myself a centerman," Laich said. "I take a lot of pride in that position. ... I like the hustle of the center-ice position. I like the intelligence of the position."
WINTER CLASSIC: The Capitals begged for years to host the New Year's Day event, and they'll get their wish when they welcome the Chicago Blackhawks to Nationals Park. The game is worth only two points in the standings, but it's accompanied by the distractions of crews filming the familiar all-access documentary, plus other layers of hype that make the Classic far more than a routine regular season game. "Mentally," Ovechkin said, "it's going to be more than two points."
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