Caps: Reading Between the Lines

As camp opens, focus is on figuring out key position battles

September 11, 2013

Capitals goalie Braden Holtby started 35 of Washington’s 48 games last season, going 23-12-1 with a 2.58 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

The Washington Capitals open training camp today at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. With less than three weeks until their season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 1, they have some interesting personnel decisions to make.

Forwards

The Capitals’ top six is more or less set with Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin reuniting on the first line and Martin Erat, offseason acquisition Mikhail Grabovski and Troy Brouwer likely forming the second line. But the bottom six is in a state of flux.

Brooks Laich and Mathieu Perreault figure to comprise two-thirds of the third line, while Jay Beagle will center the fourth. That leaves five players ­— left wingers Jason Chimera and Aaron Volpatti and right wingers Eric Fehr, Joel Ward and Tom Wilson — competing for three spots.

Wilson is the wild card. The 19-year-old appeared in three playoff games for the Capitals last season and has impressed team brass, but with a salary cap hit of nearly $1.3 million, there is not enough room to add him to the roster without cutting ties with someone else.

Defense

Washington’s top three defensemen — Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson — are all potential Olympians for a reason, but the gap between them and the next three — John Erskine, Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy — is wide.

Erskine and Carlson served as the Capitals’ shutdown pair last season, but the former’s overexposure to tough defensive assignments ultimately worked against them as he became a liability as the season wore on.

Erskine will get first crack at retaining his top-four position, but a healthy Dmitry Orlov, limited to five NHL games last season because of a concussion, has the most upside among potential challengers and will vie for Erskine’s spot. Hillen, paired with Oleksy in the latter stages of the season, is another possibility.

Goaltender

Since taking over in goal ahead of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Braden Holtby has proven to be a reliable starting goaltender. In his first full 82-game NHL season, he will look to further establish himself as the Capitals’ anchor in goal for the foreseeable future.

Behind him sits Michal Neuvirth, who was once a starter but is now a victim of circumstance as bouts of injury and inconsistency have allowed Holtby to usurp him. Neuvirth, however, is a capable backup and will provide solid goaltending when called upon.

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Rudi Greenberg | September 11, 2013