Last year’s Washington Capitals squad had a tough act to follow. The season prior, the team secured its first Stanley Cup championship under the tutelage of coach Barry Trotz. A glorious summer-long party ensued as the city embraced the festive atmosphere that came with ending a long-enduring drought.
Trotz’s contract was up though, and when an extension couldn’t be reached, Todd Reirden was promoted to take his place. As the team started slowly last year, several pundits blamed the effects of a Cup hangover, a phenomenon that sometimes plagues a team that had played grueling matches deep into the summer. It wasn’t a terrible start, but when the expectations are sky-high, people notice.
Reirden eventually righted the ship and guided the Capitals to a first-place finish in the competitive Metro division, but the team fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in the first round. What do Reirden and his staff have in store for an encore? With a full season under his belt as head coach and a competitive squad returning, it’s expected Reirden will guide the Caps to another first-place finish – but this time, go deep in the playoffs.
All the ingredients are there for the Capitals to have a big year. While there were some changes in the offseason, particularly on defense and among the bottom six forwards, the core team returns. One returning player who figures to play a prominent role this season is forward Jakub Vrana, who racked up an impressive 47 points (24 goals, 23 assists) and played in all 82 games in his second full season with the club. Vrana, who is expected to exceed those figures and play a bigger role this season, credits the coaching staff with accelerating his development.
“The coaches were very helpful, and we worked on a lot of things,” Vrana says. “I’ve been getting chances and more ice time. You need to earn that and give it back to your team and coaches.”
Vrana, a native of the Czech Republic and a former Caps first-round draft choice, says the team is motivated to get back to Cup finals after experiencing the championship in 2018. Since they were bounced in the first round this past season, the players had more time during the offseason to rest up and train.
“The longer summer will help us be better prepared to get back to the Stanley Cup this year,” he continues. “Obviously with winning the Cup, we know how special it is – especially with the city waiting so long. And last year was kind of disappointing, [but] it gets us motivated to get out there and win again.”
Among the new additions this year is defenseman Radko Gudas, who came to DC from Philadelphia over the summer, with Washington sending Matt Niskanen to the Flyers in return. The team will miss Niskanen, a top-pair defenseman who played five years in the District and chewed up a lot of ice time while putting up meaningful points. But the Capitals save $3.4 million in cap space with the trade, as Niskanen makes a higher salary than Gudas. It also gives the team some needed snarl, as the physical Gudas can be a menacing presence on the backline.
Among the league’s hit leaders, Gudas brings a wild card element to the Capitals. Though ejected and suspended multiple times by the league for what has been deemed questionable hits, a player of his notoriety can benefit the Capitals as it provides them a fiercer edge that will keep opposing teams on their toes. The defenseman, whose affability during interviews belies his intense nature on the ice, looks to continue his spirited play in DC.
“It’s definitely my game,” he says. “I’m a physical guy out there. I’m trying to be a physical defenseman who always protects his teammates and makes sure nobody is touching our goalie.”
The trade was a bit of an anomaly as it involved division rivals, but Gudas says he quickly moved past the initial surprise of the news and settled in.
“I want to focus on myself and be ready for the season. This group wants to go deep in the playoffs, and I want to have that as my number one goal going into the season. It’s a new chapter for me, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
Gudas, who is also from the Czech Republic, says he is familiar with Vrana and fellow countryman Michal Kempny, a key defenseman who is expected to miss some time due to a torn hamstring. Gudas previously played on the Tampa Bay Lightning with Richard Panik, a forward whom the Capitals signed as a free agent. Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic were all brought in over the summer to add speed and grit to the third and fourth lines.
The Capitals lost another vital defenseman when Brooks Orpik announced his retirement after 15 years in the NHL, including five in Washington. Orpik played 81 games during the Caps’ Stanley Cup season and was a respected player in the locker room. It’s expected that players like Gudas, Nick Jensen, Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler will step up to play key minutes and support top defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov.
The top forward lines are once again buoyed by superstar captain Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie, with veterans Tom Wilson, Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin rounding out the group. Number one goalie Braden Holtby will once again be counted on as a workhorse between the pipes. With not a lot of change and new, proven faces filling key positions, the Capitals are once again expected to be among the NHL’s best.
“We had some big losses during the summer,” Vrana says. “We lost some guys we have some history and some memories with. It wasn’t really easy to say goodbye, but sometimes that’s part of the business. You just have to look forward. We have a great upcoming year in front of us with this group now and we’re very excited for the season.”
Don’t miss five home games this month, starting on October 5. For more information on the Washington Capitals’ current season, go to www.nhl.com/capitals.
Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; 202-628-3200; www.nhl.com/capitals