With a chance to reset, Capitals want to play a faster style of hockey

With a chance to reset, Caps want to play faster style of hockey originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

ARLINGTON, Va. — The game of hockey has never been faster than it is today. Improved conditioning techniques, specialized training regimens and offense-friendly rule changes implemented over the last decade have transformed the NHL into a league where speed and skill are two of the most common traits of its championship contenders.

It’s a fact that wasn’t lost on the Capitals in 2022-23, the first season that saw them miss the playoffs since 2013-14. They carried the second-oldest roster in the NHL. Games with high shot volume tended to end in favor of their opponents; Washington was 13-19-6 when allowing over 30 shots in a game and 22-18-4 when it didn’t.

“I think the game is changing a little bit,” center Nicklas Backstrom said at his end-of-season press conference on April 15. “It’s a lot faster than before and it’s so important with puck movement, I think, in today’s hockey. So, that’s probably an area we can improve on and get better.”

With a veteran roster that will see several players well into their 30s return to the fold next season, the Capitals aren’t suddenly going to start skating faster. Their core is built around players such as Backstrom (35 years old), Alex Ovechkin (37), T.J. Oshie (36) and John Carlson (33), all holdovers from their 2018 Stanley Cup-winning team who are signed to lucrative long-term contracts.

However, skating speed isn’t the only way teams can improve their pace of play. As the front office conducts a search for a new head coach, the Capitals are looking to implement a system that better moves the puck with a purpose and creates space for players to make plays while moving up the ice.

“I think people get caught up in skating speed, where if you look at exact skating speeds, there’s a lot of [our] players that were within a range that is pretty consistent throughout the league,” GM Brian MacLellan said. “It is the way you play to me when you move the puck, where you’re available, where you work away from the puck. That’s how you play fast.”

Nowhere on the roster will that improvement be more important than the top six. The Capitals have regularly boasted one of the most talented forward groups in the NHL for the last two decades, but MacLellan identified the top six as the area of the roster where the “main work” will be done this summer.

“We’ll look at some things for sure,” MacLellan said. “Sometimes making change just to make a change is not right, but we’re going to look for opportunities. Opportunities present themselves in free agency and the trade market as we go towards the draft. So, we would be more open-minded to opportunities that present themselves this year would be the way to put it for me.”

The Capitals do already have a few pieces in place who played that style of hockey last season, namely Dylan Strome and Tom Wilson. Once Wilson returned to the lineup for good, he found success skating alongside Strome on the Capitals’ first line. The duo created scoring chances at a notable rate with the team averaging a 3.62 goals per 60 minutes when they were on the ice compared to 2.39 without them, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Strome, 26, enjoyed a career year skating with the puck more than he ever had in his career, impressing coaches with his ability to create space and generate momentum off zone entries. His success with the 29-year-old Wilson and Ovechkin, his linemate for nearly the whole season, makes the trio a natural choice for the team’s top line on paper heading into the offseason.

Who plays behind them on the second line likely won’t be determined until free agency gets underway and the trade market develops. With a head coaching hire still to be made and a full offseason’s worth of rest in store for their veteran stars, the Capitals are looking at returning for 2023-24 a revamped version of themselves.

“It's the theme around the league,” Wilson said of playing faster. “Everyone says it. I think this year we were kind of chasing it all year. We were behind the eight ball when it came to a lot of things. Health-wise, right when we kind of get it going, things would change, someone would get hurt. It sounds like an excuse, but it's the reality of our situation this year. There was a lot going on and there wasn't a lot of predictability, which makes it almost kind of tougher going into this offseason. You didn't really have your team together playing for much of a sample size.

“I only played like 10 games with John [Carlson] this year or whatever it was. So, it's tough that way but I think everyone around the league is trying to put a blueprint or whatever together as to what's the best way to play and obviously fast and skill is important. It's a skating game nowadays. So, that's obviously a focus for everyone.”