After the sweetest summer in the Washington Capitals’ history, the organization puts its Stanley Cup celebrations in the rear view with the start of training camp Friday. Eighteen of the 20 players who dressed during Washington’s victorious finals series against Vegas are back, and forward T.J. Oshie made this season’s goal clear when he started “back-to-back” chants at the championship parade. The minimal turnover means there won’t be much competition during training camp, but with a new head coach and the potential threat of a Cup hangover after a short (and raucous) offseason, there’ll be plenty of intrigue all of the same.
New Coach Todd Reirden
Reirden has been with the Capitals for the past four years, but this will be his first season in the head role. Inheriting the defending champions is both a blessing and a curse: the expectations are higher than for any other rookie behind the bench, but there’s arguably less work to be done. Washington wants to replicate and maintain the defensive structure that was so successful in the postseason, a system Reirden had a lot to do with as the associate coach under Barry Trotz last season. And General Manager Brian MacLellan has provided Reirden with a near-identical roster.
Reirden wants training camp to set the tone for the rest of the season and his tenure, so he doesn’t intend on letting the Capitals ease into it, but he’s also wary that the team is coming off a truncated offseason after playing a month longer than past years. That’s correlated to early-season injuries and slow starts for other teams coming off lengthy playoff runs. It’ll be on Reirden to communicate with his veterans and balance their wellness while also getting the team prepared for a difficult, season-opening back-to-back against Boston and Pittsburgh, respectively.
Goaltender Pheonix Copley
Perhaps goaltender Braden Holtby’s struggles in the second half of last season were a blessing in disguise. He appeared in 54 games, nine fewer than the year before and his fewest total in four years. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that he was then sharp during a long postseason. But the Capitals were able to play Holtby fewer than 60 games because they had the luxury of a strong backup netminder in Philipp Grubauer, who was traded to Colorado this summer.
Copley has the inside track to replace Grubauer, but it’s unclear what kind of load he can handle in his rookie NHL season. He suffered a groin injury at the end of his 2017 American Hockey League season, and he struggled at times last year with a .896 save percentage and a 2.91 goals against average with the Hershey Bears. He’ll have some training camp competition from top prospect Ilya Samsonov, Washington’s 2015 first-round pick, but with this being Samsonov’s first season in North America, the organization intends to have him at least start in the AHL and accrue some experience there.
Expect the Capitals to be patient with Copley, but if he has a poor training camp or start to the season, the team might look to upgrade at that position through trade or waivers.
Fourth-line center competition
Jay Beagle’s reliability in the faceoff circle created a near-decade long career for him with the Capitals. After he signed with Vancouver in free agency, Washington prefers a right-handed draw to replace him because the team’s three other centers are left-shots. The Capitals signed Nic Dowd in free agency after he played in 56 games with Los Angeles and Vancouver last season.
“Obviously with Beagle leaving, a right-handed shot and penalty killer, I’ve done a lot of that in my career,” Dowd said. “I think it’s pretty obvious the role that I can be expected to step into, and I think there’s a good opportunity there. I think that with certain players that can fit that mold, they put a lot of emphasis on those guys. I think that allows for a lot of opportunity for players to continue to play well and move up throughout the year.”
Dowd is expected to contend with Travis Boyd, Washington’s 2011 sixth-round draft pick who made his NHL debut last season. Boyd has patiently worked his way up the organizational depth chart, and the team rewarded him with a first one-way contract this summer. Both Dowd and Boyd are expected to make the opening-night roster, but it’s possible Reirden settles on neither as his fourth-line center. He has a third option in the versatile Chandler Stephenson, though Capitals brass seems to prefer him at left wing. If bubble forwards impress at training camp and Washington is pressed for roster spots, moving Stephenson to center could create an opening for a depth winger.
Left wing Sergei Shumakov
When the Capitals signed Shumakov to a one-year deal this month, they were intrigued by his scoring touch — he tallied 17 goals with 23 assists in 47 games for CSKA Moscow of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League last season — but that doesn’t always translate to success in the NHL, where a smaller ice surface makes for a more tight-checking style of play. They’re keeping expectations reasonable and not necessarily expecting Shumakov to become the next Artemi Panarin, who scored 30 goals with the Chicago Blackhawks in his first NHL season after years in the KHL. The two-way contract with a $925,000 salary-cap hit was a low-risk move, even if Shumakov doesn’t make the opening-night roster, but the Capitals have had good success with helping Russians feel at home in Washington. If Shumakov can continue to score at a similar rate as what he did in the KHL, the Capitals’ forward corps will have even more depth.
There isn’t much NHL opportunity on the blue line with the Capitals returning seven defensemen from last season. But Washington has a rich prospect pool of defensemen, including their past two first-round draft picks in Lucas Johansen and Alex Alexeyev, respectively. Alexeyev will almost certainly return to his Canadian junior club this season, but with a strong training camp, Johansen could be in line to make his NHL debut this year if injuries hit Washington’s defense corps. Fellow prospects Connor Hobbs, Colby Williams and Jonas Siegenthaler, a 2015 second-round draft pick the organization is high on, will also look to make a strong impression.
Madison Bowey wasn’t on the opening-night roster a year ago, but he was recalled when Niskanen broke a thumb just five games into the season, and he ultimately stayed with the Capitals for the majority of the campaign. It’s something prospect hopefuls can aspire to, but this preseason will again be a significant one for Bowey to show he’s ready for more responsibility. Though he played in 55 games last season as a rookie, he didn’t appear in the postseason. He’s likely to start the season competing with Christian Djoos and veteran Brooks Orpik for playing time on the third defense pairing.
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