The Washington Capitals officially opened Training Camp on Thursday as they took the ice for their customary skating test. The team then got in their first practices under new head coach Spencer Carbery and staff.
Group A players were the first to take the ice, giving us a first possible look at Carbery’s line combinations.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were notably reunited on the first line, with Anthony Mantha joining them on the right wing to complete the trio.
Backstrom and Ovechkin could be seen running a battle drill against Alex Alexeyev and Ryan Hofer in the early stages of practice.
Ovechkin and Backstrom back together in some early drills pic.twitter.com/HnsSiBrVlX
— Katie Adler (@katieEadler) September 21, 2023
They were later joined by Mantha on a full line, backed by a defensive pair featuring Rasmus Sandin and John Carlson.
Looks like an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Mantha combo today pic.twitter.com/lxV8Dl8gBp
— Katie Adler (@katieEadler) September 21, 2023
“It’s awesome,” Backstrom said to RMNB’s Katie Adler afterward. “Obviously, it’s the start of Training Camp and everyone is mixing up and stuff but every time you get a chance to practice or play with Ovi it’s amazing. It feels like back in the day.”
The three forwards have rarely shared the ice together at five-on-five since Mantha was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings in 2021, seeing just 19:16 of ice time as a trio. Perhaps their most notable and sole official game together came in the playoffs during 2021.
In Game Five against the Boston Bruins, on the verge of elimination, head coach Peter Laviolette tinkered with his lineup and placed the three together. They went pointless in a 3-1 elimination loss.
Since then, Ovechkin has stuck primarily with his regular center Evgeny Kuznetsov, Backstrom has dealt with major hip-related injury issues, and Mantha has found himself on the outside of the lineup and in trade conversations.
Under Laviolette, when Ovechkin and Backstrom did play with one another at five-on-five, the results were not as positive as their early years together. In slightly under 387 five-on-five minutes together, the once dynamic duo saw just 43.5 percent of the shot attempts, 41.8 percent of the expected goals, 42.4 percent of the scoring chances, and 35.5 percent of the high-danger chances. The Caps were out-scored 22 to 19 in those minutes.
For comparison’s sake, within the same timeframe, Ovechkin skated over 1,554 minutes at five-on-five with Evgeny Kuznetsov. While still not posting the best rate stats with one another, the Caps did out-score opponents 87 to 71.
Mantha, in isolation, is a player in need of new life to be breathed into his career. The 28-year-old forward, is coming off perhaps his worst season in the NHL, seeing his points per game drop by more than a third (from 0.62 to 0.40) and being healthy scratched multiple times. The big winger told reporters at the Capitals’ Breakdown Day that he had hired a “mental coach” following the scratches and in a more recent interview committed to losing ten pounds to ensure a more productive 2023-24 campaign.
The weight loss is part of his strategy to have a major comeback year and earn a big deal next offseason in unrestricted free agency. “My personal goal is 60 points this year and then to sign a long-term contract somewhere,” Mantha said. “I must have a big season – this is the last year of my contract and I would like to bounce back. It’s practically a second chance after last season. I had other less good seasons in the NHL or AHL so I know how to come back strong.”
Carbery has been particularly candid about acknowledging the job ahead of him regarding Mantha. “I understand it’s my job to get the most out of Anthony Mantha and help him get there,” he said earlier this month. “It’s not like, ‘Okay, good luck. You need to do XYZ.’ I have to help him get there and have to help identify the situations where he’s doing a great job and where he’s not.”
A return to form for Mantha alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom — or even just giving Mantha some confidence skating beside the legends so early in camp — could earn him exactly what he’s seeking. And, Carbery could be betting on another return to form for Backstrom in the Swedish center’s first, full season back from hip resurfacing surgery to help make that happen.
Backstrom, in a recent radio interview, expressed his excitement about finally having a clean slate to start a year. “I’m really excited to be there from the start and be part of training camp,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ovechkin is just 72 goals shy of tying Wayne Gretzky for the most goals in NHL history. Finding a line combination that works for The Great Eight is one of Carbery’s primary responsibilities and he is aware of that.
“I’ve watched and seen his greatness up close indirectly,” Carbery said in June. “It’s my job as a head coach to put him in situations where he can be successful and that’s what my challenge is and I don’t take that lightly at all. That’ll work into how we play as a group. One of my focuses is how we put him in situations to succeed.”
Last season’s top two centers, Dylan Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov, skated with Group B after Group A concluded.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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