Caps continue quest for elusive Stanley Cup

Like most Septembers in Washington, D.C., the attention of local sports fans is primarily focused on the Washington Redskins. But despite the fact that Dan Snyder’s team has started the season with two consecutive victories, the team in town that’s closest to a championship is the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League.

Though the regular season won’t start until October, training camp for the Caps opened last Saturday morning. You really ought to get out to see them sometime. That is, if you can find a ticket.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the team’s home, the Verizon Center, looked more like a tomb than an arena on game nights. But now, buoyed by a young lineup that’s catapulted the team to the top of the standings in recent seasons, the franchise can boast that it’s sold out 106 consecutive home games. That’s an achievement that the team’s original owner, the late Abe Pollin, could have hardly dreamed of when the team played deep in the Maryland suburbs at the late and unlamented Capital Centre.

On the ice however, the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, remains stubbornly elusive. It’s a failure that isn’t attributable to a lack of trying.

Since purchasing the team in 1999, Caps owner Ted Leonsis has pursued two distinct paths to on-ice success.

First, there was the easy way, trying to replace an aging core of players with high-priced free agents. That strategy was put in place in 2001, when Leonsis overruled his hockey people, acquired mercurial superstar Jaromir Jagr and proceeded to give him one of the richest contracts in NHL history.

While that trade and incredible contract electrified the city’s hockey fans for a time, spending all of those dollars didn’t produce enough victories. Faced with an expensive failure, Leonsis gave the go-ahead to begin the breakup of the team during the 2003-04 season, less than three years after the Jagr trade. The team crashed to the bottom of the standings and the fans stopped coming.

But as painful as that season was, it represented the beginning of the team’s re-birth. The players traded away helped yield draft picks and prospects that now form the core of the lineup. And the drop in the standings meant climbing back to the top of the heap when it came time to draft new players. As fate and luck would have it, the Caps had the first pick in their hip pocket when Alex Ovechkin, a young Russian winger with more drive in his pinky than Jagr has in his whole body, was available in the 2004 draft.

Since then, the trajectory for the team has pointed nowhere but up. Ovechkin was a revelation from the moment he stepped on the ice for his first game in the league, and it soon became apparent that there was more than enough young talent in the rest of the lineup to help put the puck in the net and provide a very entertaining night out on the town. Mix in the addition of minor league lifer and genuine character Bruce Boudreau as the team’s head coach, and the team returned to the playoffs in the spring of 2008.