The Washington Capitals’ season-opener is less than a week away and the deadline to submit a salary-cap-compliant roster is 5 p.m. Tuesday. A training camp roster that was 65 players long at one point has been whittled to 26 after the latest round of cuts Thursday afternoon.
Coach Barry Trotz said the team could afford to carry a 23-man roster with a certain combination of players, “but it would be really tight and we’ll have to hold our breath all of the time,” he added with a laugh. It seems more likely that Washington goes with a 22-man roster that has one extra forward and one extra defenseman. Only the goaltending tandem is firmly set with Braden Holtby and backup Philipp Grubauer.
With that in mind, 10 players remain in camp vying for six available roster spots. The Capitals have one preseason game left after they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-1, on Friday night with the lone Washington goal coming from defenseman Matt Niskanen. A breakdown of who is on the roster bubble:
Defensemen: Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness
After Washington parted with Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and rental Kevin Shattenkirk in the offseason, the team entered training camp with two roster spots available on the blue line. That’s a considerable change from a year ago, when the Capitals returned all seven defensemen from the previous season.
Trotz recently said that he doesn’t want defensemen playing their off side in the lineup because of how teams and players have gotten faster, meaning there’s even less room for error in the defensive zone. Considering that, Bowey could be considered a lock to make the opening night roster because he’s the only right-shot remaining after veterans John Carlson and Niskanen.
Bowey, the organization’s second-round pick in 2013, has spent the past two years in Hershey working on his game without the puck, playing on the penalty kill in part to improve defensively. He dropped 12 pounds this offseason to become more mobile after he was sidelined for months last season because a tendon in his ankle was lacerated by a skate blade in a fluke incident during a game. He’s penciled in to play on the third pairing alongside Brooks Orpik, a veteran who could be a mentoring and stabilizing presence for Bowey. He doesn’t need waivers to be reassigned to Hershey, so there’s no guarantee he plays there all season, but for now, it appears to be Bowey’s job to lose after he acquitted himself well in the preseason.
The Capitals’ other opening is on a second pairing beside Carlson. Taylor Chorney has been on the team for the past two seasons, and he’s primarily been the seventh defenseman, often out of the lineup. He’ll be on the team regardless, but Djoos and Ness are competing not only to make the opening night roster, but to snag the spot to Carlson’s left.
Djoos entered training camp as the favorite to win that job after scoring 13 goals and 45 assists in the American Hockey League last season. He didn’t stand out much in his first two preseason games, but his most recent showing was his best. Unlike Djoos and Bowey, Ness has NHL experience; the 27-year-old has played in 39 games over six years as a professional hockey player. He had an audition beside Carlson in the team’s home preseason finale on Wednesday night.
“Ness is a great player,” Carlson said on Wednesday. “He’s a great skater, and I like his gaps especially. I think he’s got great gaps. I think when your partner has great gaps, it’s easy to make sure you’re in the right spots. He’s a very predictable in that sense, so that’s great.”
In Washington’s second-to-last exhibition game on Friday night, Trotz played Djoos with Bowey and Ness with Chorney, perhaps a final audition for all four defenseman before Sunday’s finale. That game might be a dress rehearsal for the regular-season opener in Ottawa.
Forwards: Alex Chiasson, Tyler Graovac, Anthony Peluso, Devante Smith-Pelly, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Nathan Walker
Including the extra forward roster spot, the Capitals will keep four of these seven. Washington has the luxury of returning its four centers from last season, but on the wings, there’s an opening in the top-nine forward corps and then two spots available on either side of Jay Beagle on the fourth line.
Vrana can be considered a lock to make the roster and play somewhere on the top three lines. The 2014 first-round pick has spent the majority of the past two seasons in the AHL, but he played in 21 games with the Capitals last season, scoring three goals with three assists. Trotz has said that Vrana is better suited to play with high-skilled players, so in the preseason, he put him next to Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin for one game and then tried him with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie for another.
It’s most likely Vrana starts the season beside third-line center Lars Eller, who the 21-year-old has played beside in the past two exhibitions. Vrana has also been practicing on the second power-play unit. Washington has to replace two top-six forward departures in Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, and with Vrana still on his entry-level contract, he brings speed and a skillful shot to the lineup at an inexpensive salary cap hit. Of the forwards remaining, he’s the only one who doesn’t need waivers to be reassigned to Hershey, but don’t expect him to go anywhere.
That leaves six forwards competing to play beside Beagle, and the Capitals are likely to keep three. The organization is high on Walker, and Trotz has even said that he thinks he and Beagle would enjoy playing together because of their similarly grinding styles. Walker has had a good preseason, scoring a shorthanded goal in the first game against the Devils, and while point production isn’t the strength of Walker’s game, his unending energy on the ice has earned him several good scoring chances in exhibitions.
Of the remaining five forwards, Chiasson and Graovac arguably have played best throughout training camp. Chiasson is on a professional tryout after the 26-year-old surprisingly was not qualified by the Calgary Flames, becoming a free agent on July 1. Contract offers didn’t come, so seeing some opportunity in the Capitals’ lineup, he came to training camp without any guarantee of landing a deal. He scored 12 goals last season as a strong net-front presence, and that he’s still on the roster so late into the preseason is a good sign that a contract could be coming. On Friday night, Trotz again played Chiasson high in the lineup, inserting him beside Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky.
The Capitals traded a fifth-round pick to Minnesota for Graovac over the summer as an expansion draft maneuver, and his 6-foot-5 frame with a long reach could make him a good penalty-killing partner for Beagle. Graovac has impressed at even strength, too, and he scored seven goals in just 52 games with the Wild last season.
Smith-Pelly has also shown some offensive upside with past teams, scoring eight goals in 18 games just two seasons ago with the Devils. When New Jersey bought him out this summer, the 25-year-old signed a two-way contract with the Capitals, and Washington said he would be a “project” of sorts. He and Graovac have accounted for the only two five-on-five goals the team has scored in the preseason, but with how some other forwards have played in exhibitions, it’s unclear if Smith-Pelly makes the opening night roster.
He and Graovac were on Beagle’s wings on Saturday night in Raleigh, and strong work along the boards followed by a crisp backhand pass set up Niskanen’s goal in the second period.
Stephenson and Peluso could similarly be on the outside looking in with two preseason games left. Stephenson has played in 13 games with the Capitals over the past two seasons and Washington likes his skating ability, but he hasn’t asserted himself very much in the preseason. The Capitals signed Peluso on the first day of free agency, and the 28-year-old has played in 142 NHL games, known most for his rugged, physical style.
While the competition between the blue-liners was considered more intense going into training camp, it’s the one between the forwards that could have Trotz making some tough choices early next week.
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