Alan May knows a thing or two about commitment after playing in the National Hockey League as a hard-nosed winger in a career that spanned several seasons. That’s why it’s been easy for him to notice a lack of intensity in the Washington Capitals during the early part of their 2018-2019 season.
May, who played with Washington for five seasons in the early 90s and became a fan favorite with his tenacity, says it’s understandable the Capitals got off to a lukewarm start given how much energy was spent gutting through a grueling playoff format last season. That ended, of course, with the team bringing home a championship to DC in the form of the Capitals’ first-ever Stanley Cup.
“I believe they’ve been underachieving,” says May, now a hockey analyst for NBC Sports Washington, which involves regularly covering the team he once played for. “It’s not that they’re not trying, or they don’t give a damn. It’s an emotional hangover from last year and the playoffs. April, May and June were so intense. It’s nothing the players here had ever seen.”
The Caps and DC sports fans alike let out a collective sigh of relief after they won the cup, which represented the first championship for the town since the Redskins won the Super Bowl following the 1991 season. The party began almost immediately after the June 7 victory in Vegas against the Golden Knights and continued through the summer.
But then September and training camp were upon them and it was back to business. The team returned mostly intact, minus checking center Jay Beagle and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer. The key change came behind the bench where Barry Trotz was replaced by Todd Reirden after having served as head coach for four seasons.
It is rare for an NHL head coach and his team to part ways after winning the Stanley Cup, but it reportedly came down to Trotz and Caps management being unable to agree on a contract extension. Trotz initially came onboard with a four-year contract, and he coached the team in lame duck status last year. He ultimately joined the New York Islanders where he now serves as their head coach.
The spilt between Trotz and the front office also had much to do with the respect felt for Reirden. He served as an associate coach under Trotz and was widely considered around the league as a top young coaching candidate. The Caps are comfortable with Reirden, and continued success is expected under his tutelage.
“They all love the coach,” May says. “They’re all supportive of Todd Reirden and I think that transition [from Trotz] was easy.”
So, what could have contributed to the team’s lackluster start besides an emotional hangover? It wasn’t a terrible beginning, as the Caps were 10-7-3 with 23 points as of November 20, and they appeared to have begun picking up the pace. But when a team is led by stars like captain Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov, it’s expected they will be competing near the top of the standings on a consistent basis.
May says the team was noticeably different without power winger Tom Wilson, who was suspended for 20 games after what the NHL deemed was an illegal check to the head of a St. Louis Blues player during preseason. The rugged Wilson, who plays on the top line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, saw the suspension reduced by a few games after an appeal and immediately made his presence felt by scoring a goal in his first game back November 13 against the Minnesota Wild.
Wilson is expected to solidify the lineup while bringing a physically intimidating edge back to the Capitals. The winger was signed to a six-year contract extension after having a career year last season with 14 goals, 21 assists and 187 penalty minutes.
“His suspension really hurt the team,” May says about Wilson’s hiatus. “He brings a maximum level of intensity. He’s a physically dominating player and he scares the daylights out of the other teams’ defensemen.”
Besides missing Wilson, other aspects of hockey that are not as evident as goal scoring such as killing penalties and play away from the puck plagued the Capitals in the early going.
“The way that they’re playing when they don’t have the puck has to be a lot better,” says May, adding that overall physicality and mental awareness had been lacking.
It’s not often that a team misses the playoffs the year after winning the cup. The Los Angeles Kings were the last to suffer the indignity in 2015, and before that it was the Carolina Hurricanes in 2007. Do not expect this Capitals squad to endure that fate. While it is common for championship teams to start out sluggish due to fatigue, they usually find their footing and get back to a winning formula. The Capitals will certainly want a chance to defend their title come spring.
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