Ovechkin turns attention to Capitals staying a Cup contender
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Alex Ovechkin doesn’t think the Washington Capitals suddenly stink.
Forwards Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik and defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk are gone, as are the expectations of Washington being a no-doubt Stanley Cup contender following another disappointing playoff exit. But now that he has put the Olympic question to bed , Ovechkin is ready to prepare for a different kind of season and show that he and the Capitals are still relevant.
“I think we have still good team,” Ovechkin said Friday after the first practices of training camp. “We’re gonna be fine.”
On paper, the Capitals lost 60 goals from their departed forwards alone and will be counting on more from Ovechkin — who turns 32 Sunday — and fellow leaders Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Back-to-back seasons with the NHL’s most points were followed by a salary-cap crunch that will infuse Washington’s roster with some young, unproven talent and put the onus on the big-money players to shoulder a bigger load.
“I know the situation we have right now: We all have to step up,” said Kuznetsov, who is beginning a $62.4 million, eight-year contract. “The few guys never win the Cup. It’s always about team. If you look at some not-friendly teams who win two times in a row, they have young guys every year and they step up and they score.”
The past two seasons, the Capitals went out in the second round to the back-to-back Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Fair or not in a team sport, Washington’s lack of playoff success has affected how Ovechkin is seen as a player with three first-round and six second-round exits during his 12 NHL seasons.
Ovechkin was strongly encouraged by general manager Brian MacLellan last spring to train differently to prioritize speed over power. The Russian superstar did more running and less lifting but downplayed losing weight or going on any kind of special diet.
Coach Barry Trotz, who met with Ovechkin in Moscow while he was in Russia to visit his son, noticed the captain’s improved “body composition,” which can’t hurt his efforts to rebound from his lowest goal output in a non-lockout season since 2010-11.
“You’ve got be fit in this game to be productive,” Trotz said. “You always ask players to evolve. What can you add to your game that you haven’t added? In his case, the game is getting quick and he has to stay relevant from the quickness aspect.”
Losses to the Penguins showed the Capitals that team speed is as valuable as anything else, and MacLellan hopes that’s one benefit of bringing in younger players. Prospects Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, and Nathan Walker are competing for forward spots and Lucas Johansen, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey for jobs on defense.
“There’s opportunities here,” MacLellan said. “We’ve got a lot of good, young guys trying for jobs.”
Ovechkin’s job as the face of the franchise and a top player is safe, though he’ll be counted on to produce more with less roster depth. So even though Ovechkin doesn’t see scoring goals as his goal, he’ll have to do that to get Washington back to the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons.
“I want to win a Stanley Cup, and that’s my priority,” Ovechkin said. “I know exactly what I have to do. I know exactly how I have to play. It’s just a situation when you have to work harder and be able to generate space for my teammates and for my linemates to have a chance to get success out there.”
Even if Ovechkin is still 239 pounds like he ended last season, MacLellan said he looks happier, ready and excited to play. Teammates see it, too.
“He looks focused,” said Oshie, who’s starting a $46 million, eight-year contract. “I’m excited to see what he can bring. Everyone knows he has that next level, so I’m excited for it. ”
NOTE: The Capitals have two players in camp on professional tryouts: winger Alex Chiasson and defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno
For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey