Friday marks the start of the Capitals’ fourth training camp of the Barry Trotz era, and this camp promises to be notably different from the previous two. The biggest difference comes down to one word: opportunity. Washington experienced little in the way of turnover ahead of the last two seasons, and it entered last season with the rare luxury of carrying over the same seven defensemen and the same two goaltenders from the previous campaign.
Offseason attrition hit the Capitals hard this summer. Washington lost two top six forwards in Marcus Johansson (traded to New Jersey) and Justin Williams (signed with Carolina), and it lost fourth-line forward and penalty killing whiz Daniel Winnik (signed a pro tryout invitation with Minnesota). The Caps also lost top four defenseman Karl Alzner (signed with Montreal) and blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk (signed with the New York Rangers). The Caps were penciling Nate Schmidt into the spot Alzner vacated, but alas, the nascent Vegas Golden Knights claimed Schmidt from Washington in the June expansion draft.
The upshot of all this personnel shuffling is job availability. Washington signed winger Devante Smith-Pelly as a free agent and the Caps have issued pro tryout invitations to winger Alex Chiasson and defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka. All three have some NHL experience, and all three have drawn paychecks from multiple NHL organizations.
Washington also has a handful of prospects that may be ready to make the leap to the NHL this fall, especially given the number of jobs available. The Caps figure to have four openings up front and two on the blueline, so even if each of the aforementioned newcomers finds his way onto the opening night roster, there are still some opportunities remaining for promotions from within the organization.
“It’s more like the first year,” says Trotz of this fall’s camp. “Honestly, the last two seasons there wasn’t any competition for jobs. It was maybe an extra forward and an extra [defenseman], and that was pretty well it. So it’s similar to year one. We had [Nicklas] Backstrom and [Alex Ovechkin], and those guys and Marcus were the first line. The second line really was the [Eric] Fehr and [Joel] Ward and [Brooks] Laich line, and then we sort of made the rest up. So this year is a little bit similar; we’re missing a piece here and a piece there out of our top six.
“So [Andre Burakovsky] has to move up, just like [Evgeny Kuznetsov] did (a few seasons back). And it’s time for some of our kids to step up, be it a [Jakub] Vrana or a [Nathan] Walker or a [Travis] Boyd or a [Chandler] Stephenson. We need probably two of those kids to play. Obviously we went out and got guys like Chiasson and Smith-Pelly and [Tyler] Graovac during the summer. They’re going to compete against our kids.”
Expect Burakovsky to move into the top six, and expect Tom Wilson to slide up to at least the third line. In that scenario, the Caps would still have a top six opening, a couple of fourth line spots and the 13
th forward roster spot. Realistically, there are probably 10 players competing for those four openings.
Veterans Chiasson, Graovac, Smith-Pelly and Anthony Peluso will compete with homegrown prospects Riley Barber, Travis Boyd, Liam O’Brien, Stephenson, Vrana and Walker. Among the homegrown group, Stephenson and Walker may have a slight edge because they would have to clear waivers in order to be sent back to AHL Hershey.
While the Caps did endure a fair amount of turnover this summer, they kept their group of four centers (Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle) intact, and they will once again return the same goaltending tandem of Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.
The Capitals’ stability at center ice could be useful as the team takes a long look at some new wingers this fall.
“There are some players around the league – and I won’t mention any names – but they didn’t have great years,” Trotz points out. “But they’ve been pretty productive wingers in the league. Then you start to look at who was their center man. And you see that guy maybe doesn’t make as many plays as the guy he played with before. Guys who are maybe more of finishers, they need that guy in the middle. If you don’t have that guy in the middle, then it’s harder to put up numbers.
“We can put them with a higher quality center. And all of a sudden, maybe the eight or nine goals they had last year turns into 15, or maybe 12 goals turns into 20 when you’ve got some ability. Chiasson had 12 last year. He’s not the quickest guy, but he has good hands and he’s always around the net. So he could become a really good complementary player around some of our guys.”
On the blueline, Washington now has a dozen defensemen aged 22 or younger within its system. Seven of those rearguards plus veterans Jokipakka and Aaron Ness are expected to vie for two blueline openings, one on the left side of the second pairing and another on the right side of the third pair, though those openings could be altered if the coaching staff opts to split up its top pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen.
Third-year pros Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos and Tyler Lewington and second-year pro Colby Williams are in the mix for blueline openings, as are first-year North American pros Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen and Jonas Siegenthaler. Veteran Taylor Chorney has capably filled the role of Washington’s seventh defenseman for the last two seasons, and he will be on the roster once again, but could also slide up the depth chart.
“We have great opportunities for young defensemen on the back end,” says Trotz. “We’ve got a veteran American League guy who has been up and down and who has done a great job in a guy like Ness, and then you’ve got some young guys like Djoos and Bowey, Lewington, Johansen and Hobbs, who had a great junior career. We’ll see where he is. And a guy like Jokkipaka will be in that Ness column.”
Washington got consistent offensive contributions from its blueline brigade last season, and Trotz is looking for more as his team prepares for 2017-18.
“We need to get a little more offense from the back end,” declares Trotz. “We didn’t get a lot of offense from Alzner or Orpik, and that’s two of your four defensemen who don’t give you a lot. So it’s really important to work in a young guy like Djoos, who led the American Hockey League in assists [by a defenseman] or a young guy like Johansen, who skates really well, or even an Aaron Ness, who can complement a guy like Carly for instance.
“If you watch, a lot of the offense with Carly is generated with the puck already in the zone. He is really good in the [offensive] zone; he’s like an extra forward. I don’t think he gets as many points from joining the rush. So a guy like Ness might be a good complement for him, because he can get it into the zone. Or maybe it’s Johansen or maybe it’s Djoos, because Djoos maybe doesn’t have the quickness, but he’s got the poise and the patience and he can make that pass – that first pass – really well. And once he is in the zone, he’s like Carly.
“We’ve got to find out what works best with that. And then ideally with Brooks, we need someone who can do something offensively. If we have Chore with Brooks, there isn’t a lot of offense. Even with Schmitty [with Orpik], there wasn’t a lot of offense. So maybe it’s Madison Bowey or Hobbs or one of those guys. So we’re trying to develop young defensemen, which is great. If you look at our young defensemen, they’re actually developed pretty well. That’s a credit to the program we have with our defensemen, especially with [associate coach] Todd [Reirden]. When he came here a couple of years ago, we implemented some new things defensively and we’ve been teaching it to our coaches in Hershey. So we’ve done pretty well with most of that.”
While Washington has a couple of defensemen who are capable of playing on their offside, Trotz would prefer to have a lefty/righty balance with each of his blueline pairings this season.
“Chore can play both sides and Ness can play both sides,” says Trotz, “but ideally we’d like the lefty/righty situation [on all three pairings]. The easy move would be to move Brooks up [to the second pairing alongside Carlson], and there is your top four and then you just try to fill in. But Brooks, where he is in his career, I think he is best suited for that third pair. And I think you need someone who can generate offense.
“Our top two lines can generate offense, so I want to have defensemen who can generate offense. Brooks is a heavier, solid, defending guy. He is going to play in late-game situations and kill penalties and things like that, but you don’t expect him to create offense. You expect him to defend and be a great defender, and he does a good job of that. What you do expect from that [second] pair is they have to complement a high skill group that generates offense. So they’ve got to be part of the attack all of the time. They’ve got to be able to defend, but they’ve got to be part of the attack. So we just need to find the best guy, and that guy will get better and better.”
In the interest of giving the young blueliners the best chance to succeed, Trotz and his staff have set the initial camp pairings so that each of the young hopefuls is paired alongside a veteran mentor.
“We have actually lined up our defensemen with mentor pairs,” Trotz points out. “For instance, early in camp we’ve got Djoos with Niskanen. Orlov is with Bowey. Johansen is with Carlson. Orpik is with Hobbs, and Siegenthaler is with Chorney. So those are our youngest defensemen, and they’re all with veteran guys. And then we’ve got [Kristofers] Bindulis, who is a young guy, with Lewington. Lewington is also a young guy, but he’s a third-year pro. [Dmitriy] Zaitsev is a little further away, and he is with Williams.
“But the whole thought process is, let’s put them with mentors and guys who will talk to them and guys that they can learn from, so that it helps in their development. And we are doing some of the same things with some of the forward groups. Like Vrana is going to play with Backy right off the bat. I’ve got him with Backy because Backy is the guy who I think is the most intelligent and he is a good leader, and he will help Vrana’s game and his confidence and things like that. The whole thought process is not to just throw all these guys on the ice with random people. There is actually a real thorough process of putting young guys with older guys.”
Washington will play seven exhibition games this fall, and the first of those is Monday night in Newark when the Caps will face the New Jersey Devils. That contest starts a stretch of four games in six nights, and by the time that quartet of games has been played, the roster will have been trimmed significantly.
In addition to the preseason games, the Caps will have more intrasquad scrimmages, and they’ll use those settings to evaluate players, something they haven’t always done in the past.
“We are going to have more scrimmages in camp this year,” says Trotz, “and we are going to be evaluating a lot more off of those scrimmages. In the past, we didn’t really look at our guys [in scrimmages]; we were more focused on depth. Here, we are going to have to find who is going to be the best fit. So there is going to be a lot more emphasis on paying attention to what we are watching, and who we are watching and why. And we are going to talk about it a little bit more each day. ‘Who did you like better today? Did you like this guy or this guy better?’”
So for the first time in a few autumns, there are a number of jobs to be had here in Washington. Those hopefuls eyeing those spots will have to work quickly to open the necessary eyes; camp is less than three weeks long and it’s unlikely that anyone will play in all seven preseason tilts.
Competition figures to be fierce, and there isn’t much time to make a splash.
“The simplest thing is to keep the veteran guys,” admits Trotz, “to say ‘Smith-Pelly has played in the league or Chiasson has played in the league, so I’ll just slot them into the lineup. But three years ago, Liam O’Brien wasn’t even on anybody’s radar. Then he went out and made our team, and I made sure we didn’t just give in to conventional thinking. This guy made our team, so give him the opportunity.
“I’m going back to that same mentality. If you go out and make the team, then I’m going to keep you, and I don’t really care if you have a contract or don’t. That’s [general manager Brian MacLellan’s] area of discussion. But if you make the team, I’m going to keep you. You deserve to be here. I think it sends a message to everybody there, and it sends a message to everybody in our organization that if you make our team, we’re not going to turn a blind eye to that.
“Obviously there is a business side to all this that goes through Mac, but for the most part, if that guy is there, then perfect. I think there are going to be some good battles. I’m excited for those battles, because there are some guys with some chips on their shoulders saying, ‘There are actually three or four spots here.’ I think the scrimmages are going to be a little more nasty, and I think guys are going to figure who they are up against.
“In my [preseason] meeting, I’m going to say, ‘There are spots open. If you feel that you can play on our hockey team, you better look around and you better figure out who you’re going up against. And you better be better than them. If you are, you will be here.’”