ARLINGTON, Va. — When the Washington Capitals departed for a four-game road trip in late February, players knew change was afoot.
Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway had been traded away to NHL-leading Boston, and there were many more pending free agents still on the roster with a few days remaining until the deadline. One by one, they were gone: Marcus Johansson to Minnesota, Lars Eller to Colorado and Erik Gustafsson to Toronto.
The team who showed up to the first home practice since all of those moves looked very different. Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals’ core remains in place to chase fading playoff hopes, but it’s also a rare period of transition in Washington after the organization’s first deadline selloff in more than a decade.
“You hate to see guys leave,” said defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, one of just two players unsigned beyond this season not traded. “It happens quick. Obviously, this time of year when you’re not in the position you want to be, it seems to be more changes than you’d like.”
Because of a combination of trades and injuries, more than half of the skaters expected to play against the New Jersey Devils were not in the lineup on opening night – four of them weren’t even with the organization.
Chief among the new faces is Rasmus Sandin, a Swedish defenseman who just turned 23. Acquired from the Maple Leafs for a first-round pick and Gustafsson, Sandin is part of the Capitals plan to try to quickly reset from a difficult year and win again next season.
“I think we want to be competitive next year,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I still think we wanna be competitive this year. I still think we got a pretty good team.”
This banged-up team will attempt the uphill climb of extending the Capitals’ streak of playoff appearances to nine.
Five points back of the second and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference left is not a small gap to close with 17 games left. But Washington is close enough, even after the trades, to still feel a part of the postseason race.
“You keep looking up the standings and we’re only a few points out, and we play a lot of those teams that are in front of us a bunch, so if you can win those games it can change a lot,” van Riemsdyk said.
“We have a lot of guys that have played playoff hockey, know what it’s like to be in big games, so it seems like we’re going to have a lot of those down the stretch and hopefully we can draw on that experience and use it to our advantage.”
And an important player could be returning to the ice before the end of the month: Top defenseman John Carlson practiced with teammates for the first time since taking a slap shot to the head Dec. 23.
Carlson skated in a no-contact jersey and is still at least a couple of weeks from returning, but his presence on the ice alone is a sign of progress.
“This is an off-in-the-distance thing,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “But there’s a process that goes with where he’s at and what he’s gone through, and this is the beginning of the process as far as him joining our team.”
Washington’s slide down the standings coincided with Carlson’s absence and the toll it took on the players asked to make up for it. The team has since lost 17 of 30 games.
More injuries on the blue line over the past week, plus the trades of Orlov and Gustafsson, have put the onus on Sandin, the newcomer who’s so new he wasn’t initially recognized walking into the practice facility for the first time. But with veteran Swede Nicklas Backstrom around – and plenty of other new faces – Sandin is trying to fit in quickly with the Capitals.
“Just getting in here, you see how tight this group is,” Sandin said. “Since I just came in to the first breakfast, all the guys on this team have just welcomed me in with open arms. They’ve been making it very easy for me, and it’s just a lot of fun being here.”