Not much has changed since we last saw the Capitals all on the ice at KCI under the tutelage of Adam Oates last May. Most of the players that went through the Capitals roller coaster of a shortened season have returned, with few exceptions. And Mikhail Grabovski is the only new player in the organization expected to make the opening night lineup.
So while Oates didn’t have the benefit of a training camp last year, he won’t spend this one experimenting for the sake of experimentation.
He will start Alex Ovechkin alongside Nicklas Backstrom – “Ovi plays with Backy, so let’s not fool around,” he said – and Mikhail Grabovski with Troy Brouwer. He plans to use Marcus Johansson on the top line again and Braden Holtby is the No. 1 goaltender.
But there are some questions left to answer over the course of the 18-day camp and eight preseason contests.
Who will play second-line left wing? Martin Erat and Brooks Laich both fit the job description and have experience in the role. How much Erat can bring to the top six remains somewhat of a mystery heading into this season. Limited to only 13 games because of a sprained knee and dislocated elbow after he was acquired at the trade deadline, Erat showed glimpses of his veteran savvy in the offensive zone and ability to serve on the power play and penalty kill. Will a full preseason and training camp show a different player than the one who never had a chance to get settled last spring? Perhaps. But the Capitals will certainly need more production out of Erat than the one goal and two assists he recorded for them last year.
Laich is coming back after missing all but nine games last season with a lingering groin injury and, like Erat, has the versatility to play in all situations for the Caps. Oates said last week he sees Laich, who adds a solid two-way presence on any unit, playing wing rather than center. But will it be on the second or third line and will Laich have any rust after such a long time without NHL games?
Will Tom Wilson make the jump to the NHL? An imposing, dominant presence in the OHL and against players his own age Wilson’s true test comes over the next few weeks when he’s on the ice with bona fide NHLers. While there’s no doubt that physically the 6-4, 210 pound winger can hold his own against professionals several years his senior, whether he can be a consistent contributor at the NHL level for a full season is the key question.
The Capitals believe Wilson’s upside is that of a top six power forward and they’re judicious about not rushing players. So, it’s unlikely they would want to see the 19-year-old spend a formative year limited to fourth-line minutes even if it is in the NHL. If Wilson can show he’s capable of shouldering third line responsibilities in camp, though, then his chances of staying in Washington should grow. With only $665,705 in space under the salary cap, though, Washington would need to shed salary to make room for Wilson and his $1,294,167 salary cap hit.
Keep in mind that the Capitals could opt to extend Wilson’s stay into the regular season and make a decision on his future then. The year will not count against his entry-level contract until he plays in a 10th regular season game.
What does the bottom six look like? Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle will likely center the third and fourth line, respectively, and whoever doesn’t fill the second line left wing spot (either Erat or Laich) will take up that role on the third. That leaves three wing positions open and at least five players – Wilson, Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera and Aaron Volpatti — in direct competition for them. (Granted, the team will likely carry at least 13 forwards on the 23 man roster leaving room for an extra player or perhaps even two but let’s focus on the lineup for now.)
Whether Wilson makes the team will alter the group significantly. If he does, one of the others may be on the way out. If not, all of the veterans will likely have their turn in the mix. Ward was a regular part of the power play last season and should be again regardless where he lines up at even strength. Fehr developed more versatility, playing occasionally on the left side and adding penalty killing to his repertoire. Chimera struggled offensively until late in the year, but brings unparalleled speed. Volpatti is something of an unknown, appearing in only 17 games, but has an opportunity to show he can take on a more well-rounded grinder role and perhaps step into the void left by Matt Hendricks’s departure.
Oates doesn’t like to have a designated checking line and wants to be able to trust the fourth unit in all types of situations, so that will impact the look of the bottom half of the lineup as well.
“Boston’s a great example, their fourth line, [they have] the utmost confidence in those guys. That’s what you want. You want them to be able to play against anybody,” Oates said. “I’ve never been a guy that likes an exclusive checking line myself because it means some of the top six now are not on the ice. You want to be able to put anybody on the ice at any time and, if you can do it, roll your lines. The league has really shown the last few years that you need four lines to compete on a day-to-day basis.”
Who should be the left-handed defenseman on the second pairing? John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Mike Green are entrenched as the top three defensemen but who rounds out the top two pairs has yet to be determined. John Erskine, 33, held the role for much of last season, serving as Carlson’s partner in facing the toughest opponents and minutes. But his play declined toward the end of the year and whether he is the best choice to shoulder the burden of top pairing ice time against the best the new Metropolitan Division has to offer is debatable. Jack Hillen, 27, wants the chance to prove he can handle that responsibility and has the skating ability that is so important to the Capitals’ defensive strategy. But both Erskine and Hillen could also face some pressure from a prospect. Speaking of that…
Can Dmitry Orlov stick in the NHL this year? This is a big year for the young defenseman, who is in the final year of his entry-level contract. Orlov, 22, needs to show he’s ready to be in the NHL full time but he may not get the opportunity straight out of camp. Given Oates’s preference for a left and right shot balance on each pairing, Orlov would need to upstage either Erskine or Hillen. That alone might not be out of the question but Orlov has one uncontrollable factor working against him, in that he’s the only defenseman in the mix who doesn’t need to clear waivers in order to be assigned to the AHL.
Where do Steve Oleksy and Tomas Kundratek fit? Both were pleasant surprises in the lockout-shortened season, stepping in when injuries abounded. This fall they will compete with each other for playing time. Oleksy has more grit, an element not in abundance on the Capitals blueline, while Kundratek is more of a puck mover. While their emergence last year came at the right time for the team, both have yet to face the rigors of a full NHL season and there’s no way to tell how either will fare until they’re thrown into it.