CHICAGO – General Manager George McPhee liked the long preseason. Eight games offered Washington Capitals officials, coaches and scouts plenty of time to evaluate, discuss and then evaluate more. But it hasn’t made the decision-making process any easier.
With less than 48 hours before Monday’s 5 p.m. NHL deadline to trim rosters down to a maximum of 23 players, the Capitals must now decide how the lineup will look on opening night.
“We still have decisions to make. It’s been a real good camp,” McPhee said as the Capitals headed into the final weekend. “We have a lot of players here and all these players that are here now wouldn’t be here unless they had a chance to stay with us. We’re late in camp and they’re here because they’ve got a chance.”
Washington placed defenseman Tyson Strachan on waivers Saturday, leaving it with 28 players on the roster. In the group that remains, the Capitals have two goaltenders, nine defensemen and 17 forwards. The Capitals will likely cut two more blueliners and three forwards.
Where those cuts occur is uncertain, with several young players stepping up during the preseason.
Tom Wilson, a 2012 first-round draft pick, has built a strong case that he belongs in the NHL. Wilson, 19, recorded three goals and a pair of fights in his first five preseason appearances, demonstrating the blend of skill and brute force that would be an asset to the Capitals. Whether it’s this season or down the road, though, is still uncertain.
Wilson’s not the only young forward who has made a strong impression. Gritty center Michael Latta, acquired along with Martin Erat in last year’s trade deadline day move, has shown his ability to kill penalties along with get under the skin of an opponent in exhibition.
“He’s going to play here whether right now or in the near future. He brings something to this team,” said McPhee, who views Latta being an effective and agitating fourth-line center who can contribute shorthanded. “He did a good job in Boston being able to pick off passes, having his stick in the right places, and be in the right places to block shots.”
Defenseman Connor Carrick, 19, a 2012 fifth-round pick and Wilson’s teammate in the OHL, has been the surprise of camp. He’s shown on-ice composure beyond his years, and recorded a goal and four assists in four exhibition contests.
Then there’s Dmitry Orlov, who is looking to edge his way back into the NHL after a pair of concussions interrupted his progress last season. His preseason hasn’t been as strong as the Capitals would have liked, which means he may start the year in the AHL. Michal Cajkovsky, who is currently signed to an AHL contract, possesses significant size at 6 feet 4 and 234 pounds but may need more time to develop as well.
“Ultimately in the end I think [defensemen are] better for having spent time in the American Hockey League. It’s a real good league and you just get better for having played in it,” McPhee said.
Versatile forward Brooks Laich, who has been bothered by a left hip flexor injury throughout training camp, sat out the preseason finale Saturday night in Chicago. Even though he’s appeared in only one exhibition contest, both Laich and Oates are optimistic that he will be ready to play in the regular-season opener Tuesday at the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.
“It’s a lot better today, I’m really, really close,” Laich said. “This way, I’ve got three more days to prepare for Tuesday. I’ll get some rest [Sunday], get a good hard practice in Monday, and be ready to go Tuesday.”
Chelsea Janes in Washington contributed to this report.