Capitals defensemen Matt Niskanen and John Carlson have been around hockey long enough to know that when July 1 rolled around, a handful of teammates would move on to other teams and be replaced.
“I know the business side of things,” Carlson said after working out at Kettler on Monday. “You’ve got to learn to roll with it. We lost some great friends of mine, some great players on the ice. But I think we added some great, great quality players, too. So I think in this league it’s tough to stand pat and just say, ‘We’ll be better next year.’”
As many expected, the Caps lost defenseman Mike Green and forwards Joel Ward and Eric Fehr to free agency, while signing three-time Stanley Cup winner Justin Williams. They then sent forward Troy Brouwer to the St. Louis Blues in a deal that yielded right wing T.J. Oshie.
“It’s tough to say goodbye to the kind of guys that left,” said Niskanen, who resumed skating at Kettler last week. “They were really good people, good teammates and they played well for us.
“But if you’ve been around the game long enough, unfortunately you start to get used to that, where you have to say goodbye to friends of yours. They played well, but everybody understands why changes are made. If you dig deep enough you find out why.”
In a word: money. With Braden Holtby ($6.1 million cap hit), Marcus Johansson ($3.75 million) and Evgeny Kuznetsov ($3 million) eating up most of their available cap space, it was clear Caps general manager Brian MacLellan could not afford to keep Green, who signed with the Red Wings for a $6 million cap hit, Ward (Sharks, $3.275 million) and Fehr (Penguins, $2 million).
But in Williams and Oshie, the Caps added some veteran grit and scoring punch that they hope will get them into the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998.
“The new guys, that’s exciting, real exiting,” Niskanen said. “They’re good players who have been on good teams. Williams’ track record at the right time of the year (7 goals, 7 assists in seven career Game 7s) speaks for itself. He plays better in the biggest games and that’s a good trait.
“Oshie’s a real competitive guy with skill. And hopefully we’ll see even more skill than we saw in St. Louis if he gets with guys like Ovi and Backy. He’ll get some open ice and he’ll open up some ice for them, too, because he’s a physical player and strong.”
Niskanen played against Oshie when both were in high school and college and played with him as a teammate in the World Junior Championships and World Championships. He said the knock on Oshie in high school was his unorthodox skating.
“He had nasty hands but looked a little awkward skating for a while,” Niskanen said. “But when he went to college (North Dakota) that went away and everyone was talking about how good a skater he was.
“He’s an ultra-competitive kid. He’s gotten nothing but better since he was 16 years old. He’s a competitive guy, he’s stronger than heck and he’s got really good skill.”
Carlson seemed unfazed when told that many believe the improvements up front could push the Capitals to the top of the Eastern Conference standings and fuel talk of an elusive Stanley Cup.
“It means we have a base that’s quality and good enough to withstand,” he said. “We know who we are. We’re evolving and we’re getting used to it. As far as we’re concerned we have a game plan and we need to stick to it. We did a lot of good things last year and if we bump it up and keep getting to know each other and the coaches and the system we can add onto those winning streaks and decrease the losing streaks and keep growing character like we showed last year.”