As the doors opened to the Washington Capitals’ practice facility Monday morning, the familiar gush of cold air and sound of skates cutting into a fresh sheet of ice were immediate reminders that hockey was finally back.
In what Alex Ovechkin described as an “emotional” first day on the ice, the group was reunited following four and a half months apart after their first-round exit from the NHL’s modified 2020 postseason in Toronto. And as always, in the middle of the action was the team’s longtime captain, Ovechkin.
With his signature yellow laces racing up and down the two sheets of ice open to the Capitals for the duration of training camp, the 35-year-old Russian will have attention on him for the long haul.
Entering his 16th NHL season, he will also be entering the final year of his 13-year, $124 million contract. He said Monday he expects to engage in talks with general manager Brian MacLellan during camp, but he isn’t too concerned if a deal does not get done before the season.
“I don’t think we on the rush,” said Ovechkin, who is once again negotiating his own contract. “I think we understand everything what’s happening right now. Whatever is done is done. If it’s not done, we’re gonna talk, and we’ll see.”
The Capitals’ captain has made it clear he intends to stay in Washington for the foreseeable future, and the team has expressed similar interests.
And while Ovechkin’s future with the Capitals will be in the back of everyone’s minds, the looming season is the more pressing overall concern. The team has only 10 days of camp to learn a new system, get offseason additions adjusted to a tight-knit veteran squad and physically get ready for a pandemic-shortened, condensed 56-game schedule.
“The mantra from [coach Peter Laviolette] is to get going right away,” defenseman John Carlson said. “It’s a shortened camp, it’s going to be a wacky year playing teams back-to-backs and playing the same team kind of repetitively. It’s going to be different than anything we’ve dealt with so try to hit the ground running as quick as we can is important.”
This season will be a learning experience for the entire team, but Laviolette, whose booming voice was crystal clear from the start of Monday’s training camp, will have a large challenge ahead of him. A good portion of practice was spent with players down on one knee, looking up at their new head coach, who was carefully explaining his new system via a whiteboard attached to the side of the glass.
Veteran players, including Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom, both indicated the new system would take some time to adjust to, but it wasn’t as drastic of a change as it could have been.
“It’s not the exact same obviously, but some variation of something like that,” Carlson said. “The bigger changes are more just mind-set with the puck and without it and how we’re going to get up the ice is probably going to be a little bit different than in years past. So little things like that probably are a bigger difference than I would say systems-wise.”
For Carlson, it will be the first year in quite some time without Todd Reirden either as his head coach or an assistant running the defensemen. Now, Carlson will take instructions from defensive-minded Laviolette and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy.
The rest of the Capitals’ blue line will also get some more adjustments with the addition of Zdeno Chara. The longtime Boston captain was one of the splashiest offseason additions from MacLellan, and he will look to play an integral role on this Washington squad.
Minus Chara, who was not on the ice due to quarantine protocols Monday, all players were accounted for and practicing. Chara will have to go through physicals before joining the rest of the group, but he is expected to hit the ice sometime this week.
Logistically, training camp is broken up into two groups for at least the first week of camp, with “Group A” the expected group of players set to make the team’s 23-man active roster.
The way the groups are split give a couple hints as to how the Capitals’ opening night roster could shake out. Laviolette said there will be a “little bit of movement” in terms of lines and pairings headed into the season opener, but he initially likes where the team is at.
The 12th forward skating with the main group was offseason addition Conor Sheary. If the groups stay this way through camp, it appears Sheary will have temporarily beaten out prospect Daniel Sprong for the 12th spot in the forward corps. During line rushes, Sheary was inserted as the third-line left wing alongside Lars Eller and Richard Panik. Carl Hagelin was skating with Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway on the fourth line. The top two forward lines remained the same as last year.
Without Chara, Monday’s main group had eight defensemen, with Carlson and Dmitry Orlov together on the top pairing while Brenden Dillon and Justin Schultz were the second pairing. Jonas Siegenthaler and Nick Jensen made up the third pairing, with Martin Fehervary and Trevor van Riemsdyk an additional pairing.
In goal, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek were the two netminders skating with the main group. Vanecek appears to have the edge in the backup netminder competition over 39-year-old Craig Anderson. Washington signed Anderson to a professional tryout agreement in late December.
Samsonov, who was injured in an off-ice accident in Russia before the postseason and was unable to travel with the team to the NHL’s hub city setup in Toronto, still looks to have the inside track to be the team’s No. 1 goaltender when the puck drops Jan. 14.
“For all that he’s gone through, I thought he looked really good,” Laviolette said of Samsonov. “It was Day One, and so he’s got to continue with that. With regard to restrictions or anything like that, he’s full go. There’s nothing that I’m aware of. I believe, based on my conversations with our athletic trainer, that he’s 100 percent fit to go.”