With Nathan Walker out of the lineup more often than he’s been in it, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz thought he should have a chat with the rookie. Trotz told Walker he wanted to see him be accurate on wall plays. “You’ve got the speed, now we’ve got to make you a real productive player,” Trotz said. He also wanted Walker to learn to kill penalties for the team.
“He’s used to playing all of the time, and when he’s in and out of the lineup, sometimes as a young player, you wonder, ‘What can I do more because I want to play more?’” Trotz said last weekend. “Sometimes, it’s just a coach’s decision, it’s not quite your time or we don’t have a full-time role for you. I just think with him, it’s staying positive, believing in himself, and I think that’ll be easy for him because there’s no way that he would ever be in the position he is right now without believing in his abilities and his determination. So as long as he has that part of his DNA, I think he’s going to be fine.”
Walker will have another opportunity to show he deserves a more regular role when he gets back into the lineup against the New York Islanders on Thursday. Since the 23-year-old made his season debut in Washington’s first home game, making history as the first Australian to ever play in the NHL and then the first Aussie to ever score an NHL goal, he’s played in just three of the team’s past 10 games.
It seemed that three forward injuries would clear an opportunity for Walker on the fourth line, but the Capitals recalled forwards Chandler Stephenson and then Anthony Peluso, and both have gotten opportunities over Walker. Peluso played less than five minutes in the two games he played for Washington over the weekend.
But Walker has taken Trotz’s advice and tried to stay encouraged through it all, working on components of his game, like wall play, before and after practice.
“I think you can maybe get away with a little bit more in the American [Hockey] League,” Walker said. “It’s just little details and fine-tuning my game just to make sure I can try to stay in the lineup. … It’s not too bad. You’re just trying to stay positive, keep all of the conditioning up. I’ve just got a positive mindset and just need to be ready whenever they want me in the lineup.”
Trotz said the Capitals are set on their top two lines “for today anyways.” But while he feels that the team’s defensive game is starting to come around, he still wants to see more goal production for the team’s bottom-six forward corps. Those forwards have combined for eight goals through the first 12 games, and Walker has chipped in one. Walker killed penalties last season in the AHL, and Trotz said he’s started to get more time on the penalty kill during practice to prepare him to eventually get a bigger role there.
“I always like to think of myself with a smile on my face and positive attitude and high energy and everything,” Walker said. “So, I think it’s all good.”
On Thursday morning, the Capitals returned Peluso to the American Hockey League, recalling forward Liam O’Brien instead. O’Brien won’t be in the lineup on Thursday night, but Trotz thought O’Brien may have been “shortchanged” because he suffered an injury during training camp.
“He was a guy that early in training camp was really impressive,” Trotz said. “He really put in a lot of work physically. You could tell he put in a lot of work with some of the skill aspects, the skating and all that. He put in a tremendous amount of work, and I thought he had a really good start to training camp and then he got hurt. … He went down there and played well.”
Forward Tyler Graovac has missed the past five games with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury, but he seemed to make progress Thursday, spending time on the ice before the Capitals’ morning skate.
“There’s no timeline on him yet,” Trotz said. “He’s just on the ice. He’s starting to build some strength and some conditioning and whenever the trainers knock on my door and say he’s been cleared, then we’ll give you a timeline.”
Forward Andre Burakovsky had thumb surgery last week, and he will be out for at least six more weeks. Defenseman Matt Niskanen will be eligible to come off long-term injured reserve on Tuesday, but he hasn’t joined the team in practices yet, so it’s unlikely he’ll be back in the lineup so soon. Forward Brett Connolly also remains out after he was placed in the concussion protocol in a game against Vancouver last Thursday.
“They’re progressing,” Trotz said. “Day-to-day. When I know, you’ll know.”
Here’s how the Capitals’ lineup is expected to look against the Islanders on Thursday:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Devante Smith-Pelly
Jakub Vrana-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Chandler Stephenson-Lars Eller-Tom Wilson
Nathan Walker-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratched: Liam O’Brien, Brett Connolly (“upper-body” injury)
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Madison Bowey
Dmitry Orlov-Taylor Chorney
Scratched: Aaron Ness
Braden Holtby (starter)