(photo by Brian Murphy)
I’ve got to admit, I didn’t think this season was actually going to happen for the Washington Capitals.
During much of the lockout it simply appeared there were too many egos and ulterior motives in place to allow hockey’s owners and players to come to any sort of agreement in time to salvage the season.
Owners seemed unwilling to budge on their demands while many of the players were getting their hockey fix elsewhere, so at some point along the way I made peace with the idea that it was going to be a while before the powers that be from my favorite sport would get their collective act together.
At the last possible minute, the owners and the players reached a deal and now the race for the Stanley Cup will be an abbreviated one. Sure, life would be much better if these intense battles actually took place on the ice rather than in some stuffy office building during negotiations, but I can’t help but be grateful that there’s going to be an NHL season at all in 2013.
Hockey has always been my favorite sport, so even though the commissioner and more than a few of the owners did everything they could to ruin a good thing, I’m foolish enough to come running back into their money grabbing hands because I love the sport too much to stay away for any length of time.
And yet, if I’m being completely honest, part of me is dreading the ’13 season — especially when it comes to the Capitals. That’s because I can’t help but worry how this team will fare after learning a brand-new system from a first-time coach without the benefit of a full offseason.
As a player, Adam Oates stood out every time he took the ice throughout his 19-year career. He was an unselfish passer who thrived with the puck in his possession and made his teammates better simply by having them on the ice during one of his shifts.
But simply being a Hall of Fame player doesn’t guarantee Oates or anyone else success as a coach or front office executive. I mean, Bruce Boudreau was a career minor leaguer and he led the Caps to their most successful stretch in franchise history (well, in the regular season, at least).
Conversely, Dale Hunter retired as one of the top players in Capitals history, and yet, he couldn’t end his NHL coaching tenure fast enough. As soon as his first season behind the bench in Washington came to an end, Hunter happily got the hell out of Dodge. And he was someone who had at least coached in the minors.
Oates has zero experience running his own franchise. He’s got a few seasons under his belt as an assistant in New Jersey, but that’s about it. And if we learned anything from guys like Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon or even former Redskins head coach Jim Zorn — not everyone is made to be a coach.
Even with the benefit of a standard NHL offseason to work with these players and teach them his specific system, there’s no guarantee that Oates would succeed in Washington. With less than two weeks to get everyone back into town, assess everyone’s level of conditioning after months of not being able to show up for work and drill home the finer points of a completely different system, the realist in me can’t help but wonder if the Capitals are going to struggle mightily this season.
Sure, guys like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been keeping busy by playing hockey overseas during the lockout. But how much wear and tear have their bodies had while doing so. And what about other players — guys like John Carlson or Karl Alzner — who opted not to take their talents elsewhere? How long will it take them to get back into hockey shape?
And, oh by the way, the ice at the Verizon Center has been terrible for as long as the building has hosted hockey games, so how many groin pulls and hamstring injuries are these players going to suffer through — especially in the early stages of the season — when out-of-shape players are skating around on a substandard playing surface?
So between the first-time coach, the lengthy offseason and all of the standard issues, injuries and challenges a hockey team faces during a standard season, I can’t help but think this is going to be a forgettable year for the Capitals.
After five straight trips to the playoffs, some Caps fans have gotten a little spoiled thinking that’s the way it’s always going to be. But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this was more of a transition year as the Capitals basically use 2013 to teach the principals of Oates’ system while he learns what works and what doesn’t.
I’m basically going into the season expecting the worst, so if it happens I’m already prepared. And if by some chance, Oates comes in and helps get this franchise back to performing as one of the league’s elite franchises and helps Ovechkin get his mojo back … well … then I’ll be absolutely thrilled that I was wrong.