With less than a week remaining until their opening night contest of 2013-14 against the Blackhawks in Chicago, the Washington Capitals still have 31 players in training camp. They’re now practicing as one group, but it’s one large group. At least eight more players will have to be lopped off the Washington roster between now and the NHL’s opening night roster deadline on Sept. 30.
The Caps still have three preseason games remaining, and they’ll play those three games in a span of four nights starting with Wednesday’s home ice tilt against the Nashville Predators.
There are 17 forwards, 11 defensemen and three goaltenders still in camp for the Caps, and with evaluations still to be made and back-to-back games looming this weekend, the final cuts could go right down to the wire.
“I don’t think anything is set at this point,” says Caps general manager George McPhee. “We’ll watch them for a few more games and make the decisions that have to be made.”
Caps coach Adam Oates has had his chemistry set out this month. He’s been experimenting with line combinations and position changes, most notably in test-running right wing Eric Fehr as a center in the first half of camp. Fehr’s trial has gone quite well from most reports, but Oates is set now to try another winger as a centerman as opening night draws near.
As we reported in this space nearly two weeks ago, veteran winger Martin Erat will also get a look-see as a center. He’ll man the middle for the remainder of the preseason, and he’ll be flanked by the same wingers Fehr had: Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.
“Adam is going to play [Erat] at center the next few games,” says McPhee. “He thinks that’s a real good spot for him and I would agree with that. He’s a real clever player as well; real responsible defensively. He might be a real good fit at center ice. I think we know what he is. We might actually get more out of him playing him at center.”
Erat told us earlier this month that he last played center during his junior hockey days with Saskatoon and later Red Deer of the Western Hockey League. That was more than a decade ago. Erat has played both wings during his career, so he’s not unfamiliar with the concept of shifting positions.
“It’s different,” concedes Erat. “Even if you’re coming from right to left [wing] or left to right [wing], it’s a little bit different movements like when you go to the walls. I played four or five years at left wing after I played right wing and it always takes you probably 10 or 15 games just to get used to everything; looking over a different shoulder.
“As a center, it’s more about being patient and waiting for the puck instead of running out of position.”
Erat has performed well during the 2013 preseason, and Oates believes the veteran winger’s abilities are well suited for the middle of the ice.
“He’s a very crafty hockey player and smart,” says Oates. “I want to see how he’d do at center just because he could play both sides of the ice now. He’s got those skills I think to find late guys and dart in and out of plays. I want to use his skills set and see where it goes.”
Before arriving from Nashville in an April 3 trade with the Predators, Erat had spent his NHL career – some 723 NHL games at that time – in the Music City. Coming to a new team in midseason and being traded for the first time was a bit jarring, but the combination of getting in a handful of games with Washington last spring and having a full camp with his new teammates has been helpful for Erat.
“One hundred percent, it’s totally different,” says Erat. “I got here last year and got injured. I was mostly watching everything. It’s nice to have the faces I saw last year, and I got to know them last year and now it’s a benefit to have a training camp going into a full season.”
As was the case with Fehr, taking face-offs will be a significant hurdle for the 32-year-old Erat. During his days as a winger with the Preds and his brief turn with the Capitals, Erat took a total of 477 face-offs over the course of his 11 seasons in the league. He won 185 of those draws for a success rate of 38.8%. That’s not good enough for regular pivot duty, but if you dig down a bit deeper, the numbers are more encouraging.
Nearly half (232 of 477) of those draws came in the last three seasons, and Erat won 111 of those for a more palatable rate of 47.8%. More importantly, that suggests that the more Erat took draws, the more success he had in the circle. He won just 30.2% of the 245 face-offs he took during his first eight seasons in the league.
Washington is 2-0-3 during the preseason. The Caps dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to the Bruins in Boston on Monday in their most recent outing. Caps goaltender Braden Holtby was excellent against the B’s, stopping 35 of 38 shots. Boston launched nearly twice as many shot attempts as the Caps did in that game, so Holtby was on high alert for most of the evening.
Michal Neuvirth will get the start in goal for Washington in Wednesday’s game against the Predators.
Nashville missed the playoffs last season and was one of the most active teams in the summer free agent market. The Preds added veteran forwards Matt Hendricks, Matt Cullen and Viktor Stalberg. Hendricks spent the last three seasons in Washington with the Capitals, where he was a fan favorite. He inked a four-year deal with Nashville on July 5.
Stalberg came to Nashville after winning the Stanley Cup as a member of the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks. Stalberg left the Predators’ Tuesday night game with Tampa Bay in the first period with an apparent upper body injury.
Nashville defeated the Lightning 2-1 on Tuesday to up its preseason mark to 2-2-1.