WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin and the talented core of the Washington Capitals are past their NHL adolescence. Youth doesn't work as an excuse any more. It's time to be a little more grown-up, act a little less selfish and actually make that strong push for the Stanley Cup that everyone's been expecting.
As if to ram home the point, coach Bruce Boudreau has made a remedial sports lesson as one of his themes of the season: The best thing for yourself isn't always the best thing for your team.
"I don't know if they need to hear it, but they're hearing it," Boudreau said. "They're hearing it every day from all the coaches. And I think it's something we're going to pound into them, and it'll get done right."
Is this being emphasized more this year?
"More so than in previous years, yeah," Boudreau said.
Take Ovechkin. Last year he made the audacious decision to try to work his way into shape during the regular season to be primed for the playoffs. If every player had that attitude, the Capitals would have collapsed long before May. It certainly didn't work for the two-time league MVP, who had his worst season as a pro—career lows of 32 goals and 85 points—and had trouble staying healthy.
And, by the way, he's the team captain.
This year, Ovechkin is promising—again—to be a better leader. He changed his off-season workout routine and arrived at training camp looking like someone in prime condition.
"Last year, everybody can't wait until the playoffs start," Ovechkin said. "This year, everybody can't wait until the season starts."
Take Alexander Semin, the enigmatic scorer often considered to have as much—if not more—skill than Ovechkin. The rap on Semin has always been that he's aloof and just doesn't seem to have any passion, a feeling expressed in blunt terms this summer when former teammate Matt Bradley told an Ottawa radio station that Semin "could easily be the best player in the league, and just for whatever reason, just doesn't care."
Another ex-teammate, David Steckel, added that Bradley was just saying what everyone already knew.
Over the last few weeks, Semin and the Capitals have started taking steps to let everyone know that he does care. He's been defended by owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee, and—for the first time—has started doing limited interviews in English. If there's been one lasting image from training camp, it's the emergence of the Semin smile.
"I don't worry about this situation," Semin said in an interview posted on the Capitals' website when asked about Bradley's comments. "Different people have different opinions."
Just in case the talented quartet of Ovechkin, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green—all between 23 and 27—aren't fully grasping Boudreau's message, the Capitals can turn to a new quintet of veterans meant to get the team over its post-season blahs once and for all. Goalie Tomas Vokoun, defenceman Roman Hamrlik and forwards Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern are in their 30s. The fifth addition, forward Troy Brouwer, won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010.
All five have marvelled at the Capitals' talent from afar, then watched with curiosity as the team reeled off the last four Southeast Division titles—then failed each time in the early rounds of the playoffs. Shortly after he signed, Brouwer said "sometimes you need a little bit of outside views" and that he was looking forward to using his experience to help lead.
Now that he's had a few weeks to practice with his new team, Brouwer praises Ovechkin as someone great at "leading by example." The unspoken implication is that the veterans are still the ones who will have to step up when it comes time to lead with words.
Perhaps the player they should listen to is Vokoun, who has been in the NHL since 1996 and has been to the playoffs just twice, an elite goaltender toiling away for bad teams. He is relishing his chance to contend for the Cup, and his teammates need to know what a precious opportunity it is.
"It something I definitely appreciate," Vokoun said. "You don't know how many chances you're going to have—certainly not for me because I'm 35, but even for these guys. Some guys think, 'Oh, it's going to be like this always.' That's not true."
If that's not enough motivation, Leonsis has offered what sounds like the ultimate word from ownership that it's high time to live up to expectations.
"There's not another dollar to spend, there's not another ticket to sell," Leonsis said. "It's all up to the organization now to be very, very focused and improve upon last year. But there's not much that we have left to do in management. It's now up to the players and coaches and I think they've all internalized that. The fan base is built. The team is rebuilt. We're ready to go."