ARLINGTON, Va. -- The sting of the Washington Capitals' historic collapse hadn't subsided much over the summer.
"From the faces when the guys got back, it was still pretty evident," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said at the team's training facility. "Guys were very upset about what happened. Not much needed to be said."
And Capitals management has made only slight changes to a team that won the President's Trophy only to become the first top seed to lose a series despite a 3-1 series lead. The Caps, in fact, have actually gotten greener in the two departments that led to their first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens: goaltending and defense.
"What it says about the organization is that they're good players," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We didn't have the outcome we wanted in the playoffs, but you're not saying you don't have a lot of great players on this team because we do."
The core group of young forwards is arguably the best in the NHL, led by Alex Ovechkin, who just missed out on his third consecutive Hart Trophy. GM George McPhee locked up Nicklas Backstrom, who is coming off a 101-point season, with a 10-year, $67-million extension. Alexander Semin scored 40 goals last season and added 44 assists. All three are 26 or younger.
But only Backstrom played consistently during the Caps' short postseason run. Ovechkin had 10 points, but only managed one assist over the last two games. Semin finished with two assists during the seven-game series, hardly looking like the sniper he did during the 82-game regular season.
"I don't think we need to do something different," said Ovechkin, who has scored at least 50 goals in each of the prior three seasons. "We have a group of guys who can do things. We have been together a long time. This group of guys will move forward. I think it's important to stay together and remain confident."
Goalie Jose Theodore, forwards Shaone Morrisonn, Brendan Morrison and Scott Walker, and defenseman Joe Corvo are among the veterans who left during the offseason. Forward Michael Nylander, who is in the last year of four-year contract, has been loaned to an AHL team and hasn't cracked the Caps' lineup since May 2009.
This young group -- outside of Mike Knuble (38 years old), Tom Poti (33), Matt Bradley (32), Jason Chimera (31) -- grasps went wrong in the playoffs and is eager to right that wrong -- even if it's still a few months away.
"I think this will be normal year before the playoffs," Ovechkin said. "The team is getting better. The players are getting better. We just want to win games."
YOUTH MOVEMENT IN CREASE
Theodore, a former league MVP, was not re-signed as the Capitals -- at least for now -- are going with Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. The Capitals could have gone after any number of veterans this offseason, including Marty Turco or Evgeni Nabokov, and the team also had little interest in Antti Niemi, the netminder who led the Chicago Blackhawks to their first title in decades.
"Everything is good so far," Boudreau smirked. "You are going to go through peaks and valleys in the season. There are going to be times you are going to say, 'Oh man. Have they lost it? Could they not handle it?' We think they are two great goalies. We are sure they are going to be able to persevere and do well."
It's unclear who will exit the camp as the No. 1 goalie, although Varlamov has been nursing an undisclosed injury and hasn't played since the first game of the preseason. But even if you factor in that the Capitals were the league's highest-scoring team, both Varlamov and Neuvirth played well last season with one caveat: each were out long stretches with injuries.
Neuvirth finished last season in the AHL where he led the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup for the second consecutive season.
"It's a huge opportunity for both of us," Neuvirth said. We obviously want to help our teammates out and go deep in the playoffs. We are both going to work hard throughout the season. I'm feeling great and my body is healthy."
In front of net, the Caps will likely have highly touted rookies Karl Alzner and John Carlson playing heavy minutes.
"People always seem to have something to say about the defense," Alzner said. "I think it can get overshadowed because the team has such a good offensive team."
TIME RUNNING OUT?
Laich doesn't feel the Capitals, an en vogue pick to win the Cup the last couple years, are in must-win territory just yet.
"These players aren't even in their prime of their careers and they are fantastic hockey players," Laich said. "That being said, we still feel the pressure to win right now. I don't think one bad playoff (run) would have lead the team to be blown up. It's something that's been built over four or five years."
Management, however, may not have a choice. Semin, Laich and Tomas Fleischmann are all scheduled to be unrestricted free agents after the season. As the exodus of players following the Blackhawks' title showed, the salary cap can change a team's outlook fairly quickly.