ARLINGTON — The Washington Capitals aren’t getting any younger.
To be fair, there is no NHL player (or on Earth) who is. But in hockey years, the Capitals’ roster is past its prime.
However, to general manager Brian MacLellan, that doesn’t mean the Capitals can’t go on one last run, even after the team’s struggles in the postseason the last four years.
“I think players, coaches, everybody is a little frustrated that we haven’t had more success,” MacLellan said. “… There’s teams that have younger star players that are ahead of us. Then we’re with Pittsburgh [as] Aging teams that are still strong and can pull it off. I think we’re one of those teams.”
Washington began training camp on Thursday. The mood was evidently more positive than it was a few months ago, when the team was eliminated from the postseason in round one. Capitals lost six of their first round games to the Florida Panthers, marking the fourth straight season that the team was eliminated in the first round.
Since reaching the pinnacle of the sport in 2018, the Capitals haven’t won a playoff series. Each exit “burns” more than the previous one, coach Peter Laviolette said.
“The last time I was able to win a Stanley Cup was a long, long time ago,” said the third-year Capitals coach, referencing the Cup he led Carolina to in 2006. “Every year you go into it hoping to do that again, hoping to get back on top again. And when you don’t have the success that you want in the playoffs, it almost stings and burns even more.”
Lars Eller, an NHL veteran who is entering his 14th NHL season, and a Capitals 2018 Stanley Cup champion, stated that he believes this team can still make it. He said the veteran core — Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie — combined with the newcomers — goalie Darcy Kuemper, center Dylan Strome and forward Connor Brown — puts the team in position to compete once again. Washington finished fourth in the Metropolitan Division last season with a record of 44-26-12.
“Every playoff loss hurts. It can hurt you deeply inside. It stays with you,” Eller said. “We just haven’t gotten it done the last four years. I don’t know what to say other than I am still hungry. I think that the hunger is still present in the room.
“That’s what it comes down to because we’ve got the talent, we’ve got the quality, we’ve got the experience. We’ve got all of these assets, and now it has to come together at the right time. Yes, we haven’t gotten it done. Do I still believe we have the potential to win? Yes.”
There are still some obstacles for the Capitals before they can consider winning the Stanley Cup. There will be some concern about injuries as center Nicklas backstrom (hip surgery), winger Tom Wilson(ACL surgery), and winger Carl Hagelin (1 eye, lower body) are all still recovering from major injuries. They are likely to miss significant time.
The most consequential — and questionable — among them is Backstrom, whose invasive hip surgery in June puts the future of his career in jeopardy. But the 34-year-old, who carries a $9.2 million cap hit, is “optimistic” that he will play this season.
Wilson, who tore his ACL in Game 1 against the Panthers in May, said he believes he’s “ahead of schedule” with his recovery. Hagelin, however, is out “indefinitely,” MacLellan said, with injuries to his eye and lower body.
Ovechkin believes that the Capitals have enough depth to replace Wilson and Backstrom until their return. The captain said he’s excited to get to work with Strome, Brown and the other additions from the offseason.
“They’re key players for us,” Ovechkin said about Wilson and Backstrom. “But the pieces that we got, they have experience, they have skill, and we’re going to work hard to welcome them and they’re going to play good.”
The normal concern for a team with high goals is to have a star player enter his 18th season at 37. But, if last season is any indication — 50 goals and 40 assists for arguably his best statistical season in more than a decade — there’s no reason to believe Ovechkin can’t continue to be one of the best goal-scorers in the NHL.
“I wouldn’t bet against him,” MacLellan said.