The Washington Capitals are currently preparing for their fiftieth season of play. It’s a season that brings a new head coach in Spencer Carbery and assistants Mitch Love, Kirk Muller and Kenny McCudden.
After missing the playoffs in 2022-23, the team currently sits at a crossroads, with a new coaching staff and relatively old core players. Here’s a look at a few of the similar transition periods the Capitals have endured over the decades.
50 Years Ago – 1973-74 Season
The Washington Capitals were a season removed from playing but preparations were already being made for a professional hockey team to play in Landover, Maryland, along with the Bullets, the basketball team that formerly played in Baltimore.
40 Years Ago – 1983-84 Season
The previous season, 1982-83, was the first season where the Capitals had qualified for the playoffs. The hope for 1983-84 was that they would build on that season to become a perennial contender and hopefully win the Stanley Cup.
The Capitals’ key players were relatively young. Forwards Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson, Bobby Carpenter, and defenseman Scott Stevens were all aged 25 and under. Captain Rod Langway was 26. They had also just acquired 1980 Olympic hero, Dave Christian in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets. At that time, their head coach was Bryan Murray and their General Manager was David Poile.
The Capitals got off to a poor start, losing their first seven games. After their sixth loss, Poile traded defenseman Brian Engblom and Ken Houston to the Los Angeles Kings for Larry Murphy. When the losing streak finally ended, they won five in a row.
With the advent of the new year, the team turned their fortunes around. They went 30-8-3 since January 1, which included a ten-game winning streak and a six-game winning streak. They finished second in the Patrick Division for the regular season with a record of 48-27-5. It was the first season in franchise history where they exceeded 40 wins and 100 points.
In the individual statistics department, Mike Gartner led the team with 40 goals and seven players on the team scored 20 goals.
In the playoffs, they won their first playoff series, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers in a best-of-five. After that, they lost to the New York Islanders. They won the first game in overtime, but lost each of the last four in a reverse sweep. But despite losing in the second round, the team was perceived as a Stanley Cup contender. They wasted no time signing Murray to a contract extension.
30 Years Ago – 1993-94 Season
The Capitals started the 1993-94 season without center Dale Hunter for the first 21 games as he was suspended due to a hit on Pierre Turgeon in the previous season’s playoffs that caused an injury. Without Hunter, they lost their first six games of the season. They came back to win nine of their next 10 games before losing their next four games.
Hunter finally returned to the lineup on November 26. But in that same game, Peter Bondra broke his hand, via a slash. Hunter himself injured his knee in the next game after getting clipped from behind. Once Hunter returned in late December, team captain and top defenseman Kevin Hatcher broke his hand.
After losing three consecutive games in late January, General Manager David Poile fired Head Coach Terry Murray and replaced him with Jim Schoenfeld. While the Capitals lost in Schoenfeld’s debut game, the team ultimately turned it around. They had a seven-game unbeaten streak in February and were 9-2-2 for the month. One of the highlights that month was a 6-3 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 5 that featured five goals by Peter Bondra.
The trade deadline that year was notable for trading Al Iafrate to the Boston Bruins for Joe Juneau and trading Alan May to the Dallas Stars for Jim Johnson, and defenseman Enrico Ciccone for Joe Reekie.
The Caps finished with a 39-35-10 for third place in the Atlantic Division, behind the New York Rangers, who had won the President’s Trophy, and the New Jersey Devils. They ended up as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and played the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Despite being the underdog, the Capitals beat the Penguins in six games for the first time in franchise history.
The Capitals advanced to play against the New York Rangers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy for the regular season. However, the Rangers were victorious in that series, winning in five games. The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup.
After the season, team captain Kevin Hatcher departed in free agency, as did the team’s leading scorer, Mike Ridley. Dale Hunter would become the team’s captain. But, due to the owners’ lockout, the 1994-95 season did not resume until January 1995.
20 Years Ago – 2003-04 Season
The expectation for the Caps entering the 2003-04 season was that they would make the playoffs and possibly contend for the Stanley Cup. However, after winning their opener, they did not win again in October, until Halloween.
Given that the team was performing poorly and that their most important forwards (Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra, and Michael Nylander) were over 30 years of age, the Caps’ management figured it was time for the team to rebuild. Veteran players would be traded for draft picks and prospects.
Even before October ended, the Caps traded their Captain, Steve Konowalchuk, to the Colorado Avalanche. As the Caps continued to lose, more veteran players got traded, including Jagr, Bondra, Lang, defenseman Sergei Gonchar, Nylander, and Mike Grier, generally for picks and prospects.
Photo: John McDonnell/Washington Post
The team’s results after the trades reflected their decimated personnel. After the Peter Bondra trade of February 19, their record was 4-14-3-1. Their record after the trade deadline of March 9 was 2-8-2-1. Their final record for the season was 23-46-10-3 for 59 points which was tied for second worst in the league with the Chicago Blackhawks and just one point better than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Due to tiebreakers, they were rated ahead of Chicago and had the third-worst record. It was the team’s worst record since 1978-79. However, there was a prize that awaited the Capitals after that awful season – they won the draft lottery in a year where the top-ranked prospect was a Russian forward named Alexander Ovechkin who was expected to be a generational player on the order of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.
10 Years Ago – 2013-14 Season – Year 40
This was the first full season after the lockout of 2012. This would be head coach Adam Oates’ first full season coaching the team. In 2012-13, the Capitals, under Oates, had gotten off to a very poor start but caught fire towards the end to make the playoffs. It appeared that Alex Ovechkin’s goal-scoring ability had rebounded under Oates as he scored 32 goals in 48 games in 2012-13 after three relatively down seasons of scoring between 30-40 goals a year.
Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
It was a season of streaks where they had three four-game winning streaks, two four-game losing streaks, a seven-game losing streak, and a five-game losing streak near the end of the season that knocked them out of the playoffs. Ovechkin scored over 50 goals that season but had a Plus/Minus of -35. The Capitals’ defense was poor, during a season where players would be shuffled back and forth from the Hershey Bears to the Capitals.
On a positive note, the Capitals’ first-round pick from 2010, Evgeny Kuznetsov finally came over to America, coming over in early March, after the completion of his KHL season.
After the season, the Capitals let both General Manager George McPhee and Head Coach Adam Oates, as their contracts were expiring that year. Bryan MacLellan was elevated to the General Manager post. Barry Trotz, who was recently fired by the Nashville Predators, became the new Head Coach. They also made acquiring defensive help a priority as they signed Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in free agency.
By Diane Doyle