Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz paused and then slowly shook his head. Asked if any of the organization’s young defensemen had significantly separated themselves from the pack halfway through training camp, Trotz said, “No, not really.”
With two roster spots open on the blue line, this year’s camp was expected to be more competitive than years past. But while Trotz has found the competition among forwards to be fierce, with several players impressing, no young defenseman has been markedly better than the others even with two NHL roster spots up for grabs. The position is arguably the hardest to judge, and with the Capitals planning to make roster cuts Sunday, it’s unclear who, if anyone, has the inside track to make the team. Washington played its fourth preseason game Saturday night, losing to the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1, with the lone Capitals goal coming from forward Alex Chiasson on the power play.
“Some guys have separated themselves in a positive way a little bit more than others, and some in more of a negative way,” Trotz said. “They’ll figure it out. It plays out. We’re just watching.”
After the offseason departures of Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and rental Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals have a spot open on the second defensive pairing next to John Carlson and another one on the third pairing alongside Brooks Orpik. Taylor Chorney, who has primarily been the team’s extra defenseman for the past two years, is also in the mix for one of those spots. Trotz cautioned that the decisions the organization makes on Sunday are “for now” because it’s possible that whoever wins those jobs after training camp may get switched out in favor of someone else during the season. It’s an especially fluid situation for the Capitals’ rookies.
In the small sample size of one preseason game in Montreal, Madison Bowey has seemingly acquitted himself best. Bowey was not in the lineup against the Hurricanes on Saturday night, so it seems Washington’s staff has decided that it has seen enough to at least keep him around through Sunday’s cuts. Trotz was disappointed in the team’s play in Friday night’s 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues, when he got another look at Lucas Johansen, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness and Tyler Lewington, all in the mix to make the opening night roster. Of those players, only Djoos was in the lineup again Saturday.
“We want to see a little bit more from him, but also how he can take back-to-backs,” Trotz said before the game. “Can he sustain a level of play on a back-to-back? Not a big guy, so we’ll see how he does. That was done by design actually.”
Djoos responded well, playing arguably his best game of the preseason against the Hurricanes. Entering training camp, the 168-pound Djoos was considered a favorite to start the season with the Capitals. The 2012 seventh-round draft pick is the only one of the rookies who is waiver-eligible, and he is coming off a strong season in the American Hockey League, scoring 13 goals and 45 assists in 66 games. Trotz paired him with Matt Niskanen in Saturday’s game, perhaps wanting to see how the 23-year-old would perform next to a steady veteran.
Ten years ago, Niskanen was a rookie defenseman at Dallas Stars training camp and remembers telling himself, “I’m going to go as hard as I can today because I might be gone tomorrow.”
“I think you have to be the player that you are,” Niskanen said. “You have to pay attention to the details the coaches are preaching as far as how we want to play and where you’re supposed to be and your assignments. But you also have to do something to separate yourself. There’s opportunities every day, whether it be at practice, or you might get a few opportunities in a game to kind of showcase your strengths. You’ve got to make sure you really hammer home on those opportunities and kind of do something to make yourself pop.”
For 20-year-old Connor Hobbs, his shot is his best quality. He scored a whopping 30 goals with his Canadian junior team last season. Hobbs said he should get more shots on goal against Carolina on Saturday night than the one he recorded in his first preseason game against Montreal. Mission accomplished: he finished with three. “If I had 10 shots a game, I’d want to have 20,” he said. It was a point shot from Hobbs that created the game-winning goal by Devante Smith-Pelly against the Canadiens on Wednesday.
Ness’s strength is his smooth skating ability, and he did well to show that off at times against the Blues on Friday night. The 27-year-old has 39 NHL games under his belt with the New York Islanders and the Capitals, and this training camp represents his best opportunity to make the big club and potentially stick around. That little bit of experience has made him stand out, especially as the younger hopefuls have struggled to distinguish themselves.
“There’s not a lot of panic in the small areas,” Trotz said. “He’s been there and done that a few times. He’s got a little more strength on the puck; he’s a little older than some of the young guys. And he skates really well, so sometimes he can separate himself from guys. He’s just used to playing at a higher level against big men. The experience that he’s had has probably made him a little bit more ready in some areas.
“But all of the kids, they’re trying hard. They’ve got good upside. We’ve just got to let the process play out here.”
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