Over the course of his first three summers as the Capitals’ general manager, Brian MacLellan has displayed a knack for adding just the right pieces to his team. Defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik arrived for the 2014-15 season, and that duo helped Washington improve from 21
st to seventh in the league in goals against in the team’s first season under the direction of MacLellan and coach Barry Trotz.
A year later, MacLellan brought in top six wingers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and last summer the GM added center Lars Eller and winger Brett Connolly. The Caps won two straight Presidents’ Trophies over the last two campaigns, but salary cap constraints have set in, and Washington lost more stalwarts than it added during the summer of 2017.
With defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk and forwards Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik now sporting the sweaters of other NHL teams, the Caps find themselves with some holes to fill as training camp 2017 gets underway.
These last two autumns, training camp in Washington offered very little in the way of drama or competition for jobs. But as the Caps begin preparation for the 2017-18 NHL season, there are some areas of uncertainty on the roster.
“Like you say, it’s uncertain,” grants MacLellan. “But it’s still exciting. There is opportunity. We have some young guys, and I think they sense that there are some opportunities there, and it should be fun to watch, to see them try to get to that level where they can earn a job.
“I think [Jakub] Vrana should be ready, [Nathan] Walker should be ready, [Chandler] Stephenson should be ready. But they still have to perform at a certain level. Us as an organization, we have to give them a shot. But we also have to be ready – if they don’t accomplish what they need to accomplish – to find someone else. So we’re trying to find the correct balance between the two. We’re not going to just give jobs to people because they’re here and because the jobs are open. They’re going to have to earn them.”
MacLellan’s summertime personnel moves from 2017, while not as splashy as in earlier summers, make it abundantly clear that any young prospect eyeing an open roster spot in Washington will have to earn that spot.
The Caps signed Devante Smith-Pelly after New Jersey bought out the final season of his contract, and they also obtained center Tyler Graovac from Minnesota. Washington has also extended pro tryout invitations to winger Alex Chiasson and defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka. Those moves can be seen as insurance plays; in the event that the likes of Vrana, Walker and/or Stephenson are deemed not quite ready for prime time, the Caps have a fall back plan centered on a handful of players with some prior NHL experience.
“We have guys who should be able to accomplish what we need,” says MacLellan of his homegrown options from within the Washington system, “but we also need to be cognizant that if they can’t get it done, we’re going to have to go elsewhere.”
The Caps figure to have four openings in the forward ranks, and two more on the blueline. Washington still boasts a solid stable of core players, and now it must identify a few new complementary players to fill in around the edges. Now it’s up to the players to earn the spots, and it’s up to MacLellan, Trotz and their fellow talent evaluators to put the players in the best spots to succeed.
Washington’s stability in the middle of the ice – the team is returning the same group of four pivots from last season – may be useful in deciding which wingers will make the grade this fall.
“I think we’re solid up the middle, and that’s the key for us,” says MacLellan. “And then I think wingers will work their way through it. There are a lot of different options that Barry and the coaching staff can use and try. And because there are jobs available, I think people should have the mindset that ‘I want to move up,’ or ‘I want to play in the top six.’
“I hope Tom Wilson is looking at it as ‘This is my chance to move up in the lineup; there is no Justin Williams here.’ I hope he looks at it like that. I hope Vrana is looking at it like, ‘This is my opportunity to play with a good center man and a good team and a good role.’ I hope he’s hungry that way. Chiasson spent some time last year playing with the good guys in Calgary, and he played pretty decently with them. I hope he looks at it like, ‘Hey, I want to be a top six guy, too.’
“I’m hoping that we’re creating a competitive environment where jobs are going to be open and coaches are going to be open to who is playing with who, on the wings especially. And the good thing is, we’re pretty solid up the middle. You’re going to play with a good center man. It’s a good spot for wingers.”
On the blueline, the Caps still have a formidable first pairing in Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen, they have excellent two-way righty John Carlson for the second pair and veteran stay-at-homer Brooks Orpik for the third unit. Now they’ll need to identify partners for Carlson and Orpik, or perhaps split that top pairing in a manner that spreads the talent out more equitably among the pairings.
Associate coach Todd Reirden, set to begin his fourth season on the job, is in charge of the defensemen, and he’s done a great job of making all of Washington’s defensemen better, from young prospects to old hands such as Orpik and Niskanen. Washington now has a stable of a dozen defensemen aged 22 or younger, and only one of those (Lucas Johansen) carries the sheen of being a first-round draft pick. The Caps will rely heavily on Reirden to help develop what the organization hopes will be the next wave of young Washington defensemen.
“Todd is a great developer of defensemen,” says MacLellan. “He has a real good feel, and a real good relationship with the players. He recognizes strengths and weaknesses in players, and guys have improved. All these guys have improved. And Niskanen and Orpik have provided great support to Todd as a coach. They reinforce the things that he talks about, and they do it at a player level, which is different than a coaching level.
“I think all of our guys have improved since we brought in the three of them. It’s a good veteran group that really helps out the young defensemen as they come in. I’m not opposed to a young guy playing with Niskanen again, and Orlov taking more of a leadership role. That could work. Carlson could take more of a leadership role, and Brooks Orpik can play with a young guy on that third pair and help him come along. I think we’re sitting fairly well defensively. I know we have some holes, but we have good young guys who can develop into steady defensemen.”
The Caps only have seven preseason games and a handful of scrimmages with which to evaluate several dozen players, including 18 or 20 who have anywhere from a dark horse’s chance to a legitimate shot at nailing down an open roster berth.
While us media types are generally guilty of putting way too much emphasis on the prestige of an opening night roster, it’s ultimately just a one-day snapshot of a list of players. There hasn’t been much back and forth movement between Washington and AHL Hershey over the last two seasons, but that could change in 2017-18. It will be a tall order for the Caps’ braintrust to make all the “right” personnel decisions immediately, just based on the seven exhibition games and the scrimmages.
It’s more likely that the roster will be somewhat fluid for the first month or six weeks of the season, though team results and general health will also play a part in that process.
“Given our situation and where we are at,” begins MacLellan, “we want a competitive environment and we want options as far as salary to fit into the salary cap. I think it will work out in the end.
“I look at it as we have a training camp, and there will be a little separation among some of the players – I hope – and then we have the beginning of the season. We can work things out. A guy can go down to Hershey for the first 20 games or 10 games and come back after that. Whatever the situation demands, I think we can adjust to that. We are going to have flexibility with a lot of young defensemen trying to play.”
After having the pedal to the floor in terms of trying to win a Stanley Cup these last three seasons, the Caps are undergoing a philosophical shift. Winning the Stanley Cup is still the ultimate and only goal, but the means of achieving that goal have been altered.
“I think we are more in the mode of accumulating draft picks versus getting rid of them,” says MacLellan. “We spent three years trying to build a championship team. Now it’s more taking a step back. I think we’ll be more aware of keeping draft picks and making picks, developing Burakovsky and developing Kuznetsov; that next wave of our core guys. And it’s the same thing on [defense]. These young guys that we’ve got playing now, they’re going to be our core guys here pretty soon.
“Philosophically, I think we’ve changed. We’ve got a lot of good young guys that we just want to play. Our philosophy has changed from completely going for it to developing some young players to complement our core guys.”
First-round draft choices have formed the core of Washington’s team over the last decade, a period of great regular season success. Many of those players, such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Burakovsky, are still here. As they move forward, the Caps will be seeking to develop some of their later round picks into NHL regulars.
“I think [assistant GM] Ross [Mahoney] and his [amateur scouting] staff have improved over the years,” says MacLellan. “We’ve got [fifth-rounder Shane] Gersich coming. [Fifth-rounder Connor] Hobbs looks like a great pick. Walker is a third-round pick who should be good. I think we’ve got some guys who are later round picks who should be able to play here coming up in the next few years, and the staff has done a good job to find those guys.”
They have. The next step is to turn them into bona fide NHL players. In a perfect world, more than a couple of the kids will make that jump this season.