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September 29, 2013

Washington closes out its 2013 preseason slate with a Saturday night visit to Chicago to take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. The Caps and Hawks hooked up in a preseason tilt at Verizon Center eight days ago with the Hawks taking a 5-4 shootout decision in that one.


For the Caps, Saturday’s game also concludes a set of back-to-back games this weekend. Washington downed the Philadelphia Flyers 6-3 at Verizon on Friday night. As they head to Chicago for Saturday’s exhibition finale, the Caps still have 29 players on their roster.


Washington must pare at least half a dozen players off its roster before it returns to the Windy City for Tuesday’s season opener against the Hawks. The Caps have until Monday afternoon to shave the roster down to the league maximum of 23 players, but any players who require waivers will have to be placed on waivers by noon on Sunday in order to clear waivers prior to Monday’s deadline.


When camp started back on Sept. 12, few would have envisioned the Capitals carrying 29 players into the final weekend of the preseason. But several players have made positive impressions on the brass this month, and the difficult roster decisions that lie ahead are a positive indicator of depth in the Washington organization. Any player still on the roster at this point has a chance of making the roster.


Heading into camp, the Caps expected that 19-year-old right wing Tom Wilson would make a serious bid for an opening night roster berth. Wilson has not disappointed; he has had a strong camp showing, has played well in the preseason and is one of the players still in the mix for an opening night roster spot.


With a goal and a one-sided fight victory in Friday’s win over the Flyers, Wilson aided his cause once again. He has scored three goals in five preseason games.


“It’s so much fun being up here in this locker room in front of the great fans out there,” said Wilson after Friday’s game. “It’s awesome any time you get to put this uniform on. I’m just learning everything I can every game I get to jump in on.”

Wilson can’t be sent to the AHL; he would have to return to his Plymouth junior team in the OHL if he does not crack the Caps’ roster.

Defenseman Connor Carrick, Wilson’s teammate at Plymouth, is another 19-year-old who is opening eyes this preseason. Carrick played against Boston and Philadelphia this week, and held his own against two physical teams that dressed largely their varsity roster. Carrick logged 26:15 on Monday against the Bruins, scoring a power play goal in that game as well. He registered three assists against the Flyers on Friday while skating 22:20. Carrick has a goal and five points in four exhibition games.

Veteran pro winger Dane Byers is in camp on a Hershey contract, but he has a pair of helpers and a handful of fights this fall and appears to be making a push for a possible NHL deal. A former second-round draft choice of the New York Rangers, the 27-year-old Byers has also spent some time on the Caps’ penalty-killing unit this fall.


The NHL’s salary cap for the 2013-14 season has dipped to $64.3 million, making it a challenge for many clubs to squeeze all their talent onto the roster. Many teams have had to make hard roster decisions since the end of last season, and roughly half the clubs in the league are pushing up tightly against the salary cap maximum.


Should they decide to do so, the Caps can accommodate Wilson on their roster without moving a player to another NHL club. With so many extra players still on the roster, and with forwards Byers and Michael Latta and defensemen Carrick and Tyson Strachan making strong cases for themselves, the Capitals have many options available to them this weekend as they go about setting the opening night roster.


The maximum is 23 players; but the Caps are not required to carry that many.


With 17 forwards and 10 defensemen still on the roster heading into the final weekend, and assuming Washington will start with a full 23-man complement, the Caps seem likely to pare three players at each position. That’s  assuming that no trades are in the offing. The Caps waived defenseman Tomas Kundratek earlier in the week, and many believed the young blueliner would not clear waivers. He eventually did clear, giving the Caps more depth on the right side of the blueline at the AHL level.


Caps general manager George McPhee may have to place more players on waivers this weekend. If he does so, he won’t be trying to sneak them through the process. McPhee learned long ago not to place a player on waivers if you’re not willing to lose him. If the Caps’ general manager waives a player, he does so with the expectation that the player will be claimed. If he is not claimed, that player then results in a sort of “bonus” depth for the organization.


There is always the possibility of a last minute deal that would ease the Caps last-minute decision-making process, and it’s certainly also possible that Washington would the season with fewer than 23 players.


Before they get to all of the roster machinations, the Caps will take on the Hawks in Chicago, giving several players one last chance to make a lasting impression on the brass.


There’s no solid word on what Washington’s lineup will look like yet, but we know that Caps captain Alex Ovechkin won’t play; he’s en route to Greece for the honor of being the first Russian to carry the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch. Braden HOltby is slated to get the start for the Caps in Chicago after Neuvirth manned the crease in Friday’s win over Philly.