TAMPA — Capitals Coach Barry Trotz hadn’t yet examined his players’ time on ice in Washington’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he had a feeling he’d demanded a lot from some players on his blue line.
“Our back end got fatigued,” Trotz said after the game.
Well, some of the back end got fatigued. While Washington’s top two pairs played 22-plus minutes, the duo of Taylor Chorney and Aaron Ness played 10:17 and 8:56, respectively, in roughly half as many shifts as the Capitals’ other four defensemen. Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov each skated more than 25 minutes, and Orlov finished with a game-high 27:33 time on ice.
Ice time usually hints at a coach’s thinking, and in the minuscule sample size of three games, the division of minutes indicates that Trotz isn’t quite comfortable with his third pairing yet. Ness and Chorney played three shifts in the third period, when the Lightning had its most forceful offensive push, and after the pair was on the ice for the tying goal by Nikita Kucherov, it didn’t see the ice again for the rest of the game. Ness was called for two minor penalties in the first period, giving him four through three games.
Some blueline struggles were to be expected after the Capitals lost defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk in the offseason, and Washington’s situation is far from dire after a 2-0-1 start. But the Capitals have allowed an average of 37 shots in those three games, among the most in the league and not a recipe for continued success.
A trendy pick to reach the Stanley Cup final, Tampa Bay was the first major test of Washington’s young season, and the next one is Wednesday’s visit from the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s unclear whether Washington will make any changes to their lineup before hosting Pittsburgh. Coaches and management have indicated since training camp that this third pairing of Ness, 27, and Chorney, 30, is a temporary fix until Washington can incorporate some of its younger blue-liners.
“They’re not ready to be full-time, so we’re working around it,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said last week. “We’re buying time for guys who we think are going to be high-end guys. … They’re not ready, but they’re close. So, that’s optimistic for me. In the second half, I don’t know what it looks like, but depending on how guys progress, they’re going to help fill holes that you have.”
Rookie defenseman Christian Djoos has been a healthy scratch for the first three games, and with Trotz looking to get everyone on the roster into a game early in the season, Djoos is expected to make his NHL debut soon, perhaps even against the Penguins. Madison Bowey was the last cut from Washington’s training camp roster, a move that was related to Bowey still being waiver exempt and also carrying a $703,333 cap hit that is higher than those of Djoos and Ness.
It’s possible the Capitals felt handcuffed with roster and cap room to start the season because forward Tom Wilson was suspended the first four games, meaning Washington had to carry a 14th forward in case there was an injury while Wilson was ineligible to play. Wilson’s suspension ends after Wednesday’s game against the Penguins, and if the Capitals did decide to tweak their roster, potentially shrinking down to 22 players rather than 23, they likely would wait until Thursday for that reason.
Along with Djoos and Bowey, Washington is high on blueline prospects Lucas Johansen, Jonas Siegenthaler, Connor Hobbs, Colby Williams and Tyler Lewington, all starting the season in the American Hockey League. Their first taste of the NHL might not be so far away.
“The thing with us, the young guys are going to be the foundation of our whole organization,” Trotz said last week. “We’re excited about the fact, you know, we’re going to infuse some young guys here as we keep going along. Right now, we just want to stabilize it. Right now, on defense for instance, we’re going to stabilize it with a little more of a veteran part of the roster to start. Because the first part of the season, especially the first three or four games or matches, are a little hairy. They’re really ramped up because everyone is so excited. I think it gives our veteran guys — they’ve gone through it a few times — we’re hoping that’ll just help settle it down. Once we get rolling and it settles down a little bit, I think it gives our younger guys an opportunity to feel comfortable.
“This is the point for young guys when they make a hockey team, now they’re going, ‘Okay, I made the hockey team and now I’ve got to find a place to live, and I’ve got to do this.’ There’s a lot going on that people don’t think about. ‘You know, hey, throw the kid in.’ There’s a little bit more going on because they have to start dealing with life things. I think it just allows them to settle in, get comfortable. We’ve got a lot of games, they’re going to be a huge part of what we’re doing here.”
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