OTTAWA — As Tyler Graovac read the news of his own trade, his smile grew wider at each sentence that painted him as nothing more than an expansion-draft chess piece. The Washington Capitals wanted to protect Lars Eller from being selected by Las Vegas, so they traded a fifth-round draft pick to Minnesota for an expansion draft-eligible forward who could be exposed instead of Eller. That would be Graovac.
Graovac understood all of that. But he also thought to himself, “They don’t even know what they have.”
To Washington’s delight, Graovac certainly showed the Capitals exactly what they got out of that June trade. Not only is Eller still in the lineup, but Graovac is also expected to make his Washington debut in the season opener at Ottawa on Thursday night after he stood out in training camp.
“We liked him, and we’d seen him play good and not so well,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “There was inconsistency in his game. I think he’s played really well in this camp. I’m impressed by the way he’s come in and kind of took it over and competed for a job.”
It’s been a long two years since Graovac last made a team’s opening night roster. He played in Minnesota’s season opener at Colorado in 2015 as the third-line center between Charlie Coyle and Thomas Vanek, but he wouldn’t play another NHL game that season until February. Graovac had a right groin injury before he came to that training camp, so he took a cortisone shot and temporarily felt better. But in that first game, Graovac’s groin gave out to the point where it required a procedure in Philadelphia. A six-week protocol followed, and by the time Graovac was cleared to play, he had lost 15 pounds and was behind other players who were in midseason form. He spent most of that season in the American Hockey League.
The following summer, Graovac was still limited in his lower-body activity. He stayed away from running and sprinting in his offseason training as the scar tissue from the surgery lingered. But he played in 52 games with the Wild, scoring seven goals and feeling healthy. As he prepared for Washington’s training camp this summer, he started to feel soreness in his lower body, and he couldn’t have been happier.
“It was like a muscle sore — a great sore,” Graovac said. “It was, like, wow. I was so relieved.”
He had an uphill battle to make the team in Washington with the Capitals naturally more loyal to homegrown prospects, like Travis Boyd, Riley Barber and Chandler Stephenson. Boyd and Barber didn’t need waivers to be sent down to the AHL, but as the roster got thinner and Washington had to waive a forward to sign Alex Chiasson and settle on a 23-man opening night roster, the team exposed Stephenson to waivers Wednesday. Rather than part with Graovac, the Capitals risked another team swiping Stephenson, ironic considering how Graovac got here in the first place.
On one of Washington’s first days of training camp, Coach Barry Trotz admitted to Graovac he had only seen a handful of his games and he wasn’t very familiar with the 6-foot-5 forward. That more or less matched Graovac’s preconception of how he’d be received.
“I was just really excited to get to Washington and get that first skate in,” Graovac said. “My positive thinking all summer was, ‘You know, wow, this kid is a big kid. Who is this kid? Who is Graovac?’ That was my vision [of how I wanted them to see me]. I knew no one really knew my name.”
The Capitals didn’t have any openings at center, so Graovac quickly volunteered to play any position on the ice. On Thursday, he’ll be on the left side of fourth-line center Jay Beagle and playing in his home province of Ontario. His mother’s side of the family lives roughly an hour from Canadian Tire Centre, so Graovac will be cheered on from one of the suites in the arena.
His friends and family have been asking him for Capitals jerseys with his name and No. 91 on them, but Graovac has been hesitant, wanting to establish himself here first. He remembers being in this same place two years ago, on the cusp of becoming a full-time NHLer, but his body didn’t cooperate. An expansion draft maneuver brought him back to square one with this organization, and that wasn’t a bad thing.
“That kind of makes it special for me, that it was fresh coming in,” Graovac said. “I wanted to make that impression where everyone kind of knew who I was.”
Here’s Washington’s expected lineup for its season opener in Ottawa on Thursday night:
Andre Burakovsky-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Jakub Vrana
Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Alex Chiasson
Tyler Graovac-Jay Beagle-Devante Smith-Pelly
Scratches: Nathan Walker, Tom Wilson (suspended)
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-John Carlson
Aaron Ness-Taylor Chorney
Scratch: Christian Djoos
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