Through six preseason games, the Washington Capitals auditioned three different left-shot defensemen on a second pairing with John Carlson. The team has now settled on a choice to start the season: none of them.
During Saturday’s practice, the last of training camp before Washington makes its final roster cuts, it was defenseman Brooks Orpik skating beside Carlson. The two were the Capitals’ top duo three years ago when Coach Barry Trotz arrived, but Orpik was bumped down to a third pair last season and his average time on ice was slashed by two minutes.
To this point in training camp, Washington has seemed hesitant to reunite the two. The lineup could feature two rookie defensemen on opening night, and the Capitals had intended to pair those young blue-liners with veterans — one beside Carlson and one beside Orpik. But after the team tried Aaron Ness, Christian Djoos and Taylor Chorney with Carlson in preseason games without much success, Washington seemingly has decided to stack its top pairs with its most experienced blue-liners.
“We are considering that, especially with the number of road games that we have [to start the season],” Trotz said. “I think it probably restarts a guy like Carly; it could help restart him. I think it gets everybody sort of where they are now. They get moved around. You’ll see in special teams and afterwards, it’ll be a little bit similar to what you saw in training camp, a younger guy with an older guy in what we call those bump-up shifts. They’ll have different roles. I think we’ll be fine that way. . . .
“They were a terrific complement together a couple years ago. We’re rewinding the clock a little bit, if you will.”
Eight of the Capitals’ first 12 games are on the road, when Trotz won’t be able to control matchups. With Carlson and Orpik back together, Washington could debut an incredibly green third pairing. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were the Capitals’ top duo last season and are sticking together, so Washington’s third pair might have zero NHL games of experience on opening night. Ness, Djoos and Madison Bowey are the three blue-liners left at training camp who are still vying for jobs. Two will make the team, and on Saturday, Djoos and Bowey were skating together. Neither one has made his NHL debut yet.
Both Djoos and Ness need waivers to be returned to the American Hockey League, while Bowey is still exempt from that process. Despite that, Bowey might have the best chance to make the team because he’s the only right-shot remaining on the roster other than Carlson and Niskanen. The fear of losing a player on the waiver wire could help Djoos, who’s four years younger than Ness and is coming off an impressive season in the AHL with 13 goals and 45 assists.
Taylor Chorney was primarily the Capitals’ seventh defenseman last season, appearing in just 14 games, but perhaps he will have a more consistent role this year with the other two blue-liners alternating in and out of the lineup as his partner on the third pairing. The Capitals also could rotate their top four defenseman onto the third pairing with one of the younger blue-liners for some shifts.
The training camp roster has to be salary-cap compliant and cut down to no more than 23 players by Tuesday at 5 p.m. No matter which two blue-liners Trotz settles on to start the season, he’s already shown he has more trust in Orpik than any of the other options.
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