As August became September and the start of another NHL training camp drew closer, weekday mornings at Kettler Capitals Iceplex got busier. What started as a handful of players donning practice jerseys multiplied, Capitals prospects and veterans skating together in preparation for another season. Friday begins the 20-day process of whittling down the group of 65 players to a 23-man roster for opening night, and more so than in recent training camps, some of the prospects have a real chance to keep skating with the veterans well into October.
Winners of back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies as the league’s best regular-season team, the Capitals have had few job openings in their lineup over the past two years. But after salary cap constraints created significant offseason turnover, this training camp will help answer several lineup questions entering a new season and a new chapter for the organization.
The Capitals have to identify a defenseman to play alongside John Carlson in the top four and then another one with Brooks Orpik on a third pairing. Washington also will have to replace three forwards. Needing cheap, young talent to fill the voids, the Capitals now will look to their prospect pool after years of asking those players to be patient.
“It’s a good chance for us,” 23-year-old defenseman Christian Djoos said. “We’ve just got to make the best of it and try to take the chance. This year, it’s a bigger chance for us to play than last year for us, so we’re happy with that.”
Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan referred to the past two seasons as a “two-year window” with a mostly stable core of players. Change was expected after the Capitals again lost to the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs in May, and even if Washington wanted to keep the gang together, little escalation in the salary cap for the upcoming season coupled with half of the roster needing new contracts this summer meant the team couldn’t afford to keep everyone.
Forward Justin Williams signed with the Carolina Hurricanes in free agency, and Marcus Johansson was traded to the New Jersey Devils after Washington awarded big contracts to T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The departures of Williams and Johansson leave two vacancies among the top six forwards, one of which is expected to be filled by 22-year-old winger Andre Burakovsky. After scoring three goals in the playoffs, Tom Wilson could be in line for a bigger role, and 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana also will get “a shot,” MacLellan said in July.
After the Capitals prided themselves on their deep and balanced lineup last season, they could have two new faces alongside center Jay Beagle on the fourth line. Prospect Nathan Walker is seen as the potential replacement for Daniel Winnik, who reliably killed penalties while scoring a career-high 12 goals last season. Alex Chiasson, who scored 12 goals in Calgary last season, is attending training camp on a paid tryout, and Washington signed Devante Smith-Pelly in free agency after he was bought out in New Jersey. MacLellan said he sees Smith-Pelly as a “project,” and he and Chiasson could have an edge in training camp over some prospects with less NHL experience.
“I think there’s some untapped potential,” MacLellan said of Smith-Pelly, who scored four goals in 53 games last year. “I think maybe conditioning played a factor in some of it. I think we’re going to work with him to see if we can get a little bit of that back and create a player we can use. We’re looking for ways on the bottom end of our lineup to add cheaper players or develop cheaper players because of the Kuznetsov signing and the Oshie signing. We’re going to have to be more creative on the fourth line.”
A year ago, Washington entered its training camp with the same seven defensemen as the season before. The Capitals will have to welcome two new faces to the blue line this fall after Nate Schmidt was swiped in the expansion draft, and Karl Alzner, who played in every Capitals regular-season game for seven straight years, and Kevin Shattenkirk, a trade-deadline addition, found new homes in free agency. Shrinking cap space meant Washington couldn’t afford another top-four defenseman in free agency to replace those losses, so when MacLellan last spoke to reporters, he expected two “young guys” to be on the blue line.
Djoos is a favorite to make the team after he scored 13 goals with 45 assists in 66 American Hockey League games last season. Aaron Ness has played in 39 NHL games since 2011, and his slick-skating style is reminiscent of Schmidt, so he could contend for one of those defense openings. Six other names could be added to that list with this training camp being a true three-week audition.
“I think we’ll give people opportunities to show what they can do,” MacLellan said, “and make our decisions based on that.”
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