After a summer with the Stanley Cup, the Washington Capitals are back on the ice for the start of training camp. The team is largely the same — 18 of the 20 players who dressed for the Finals against Vegas are back — but today we address recent free agent addition Sergei Shumakov and what his arrival might mean for Washington’s other wingers. Today’s mailbag also ponders goaltender Braden Holtby’s workload and reflects on the Capitals’ days with the Cup.
There’s understandably a lot of intrigue around Shumakov to start training camp. Washington signed him earlier this month when his contract was terminated with CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League, where he had 17 goals and 23 assists in 47 games. As one Capitals staffer told me, “He can score,” but Washington also understands that the transition to the NHL often takes time. For one, the smaller ice surface lends itself to a more physical and tight-checking game than Shumakov may be used to.
To that end, I don’t see Shumakov, 26, as a real “threat” to younger wingers Andre Burakovsky or Jakub Vrana yet. He has to prove he’s a threat to make the team first. He’s on a two-way contract, meaning he gets paid less in the American Hockey League, and that’s typically an indicator that a player isn’t a lock for the NHL roster. The Capitals seem to have reasonable expectations, hoping he brings a similar scoring clip to an already deep lineup while not necessarily counting on that.
As for Burakovsky and Vrana, they’re both in contract years, set to become restricted free agents at the end of the season. While Vrana is entering just his second full season, this will be Burakovsky’s fifth, and with or without Shumakov, there’s pressure for him to find the consistency that has eluded him over the past four years. Hand injuries have hampered him, and after Burakovsky showed promise with a 17-goal campaign in 2015-16, he scored 12 goals each of the past two seasons, his point total decreasing each year. Both players are undeniably talented, and the next step is to minimize some of the drawn-out slumps that have plagued them.
Holtby’s workload will be something to watch as the season unfolds. I suspect he would disagree, but perhaps playing fewer than 60 games for the first time in four years helped him be sharp in the playoffs, when he posted a 2.16 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. He wasn’t in net as much in large part because of his own second-half struggles but also because the Capitals had a capable backup in Philipp Grubauer. Now that Grubauer is with the Colorado Avalanche, Pheonix Copley has the inside track to replace him as Holtby’s understudy.
But Copley has appeared in just two NHL games, so it’s unclear how many games Washington will trust him with outside of back-to-back situations. Though the Capitals have top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov waiting in the wings, he’s expected to spend his first season of North American hockey in the AHL. Should Copley struggle, Washington could upgrade at that position in-season through trade or waivers.
What makes the Stanley Cup days so special is that each is unique and so fitting for the player. They’re revealing of players’ backgrounds and hometown. With captain Alex Ovechkin in Moscow, the parties were flashy and there was a constant frenzy around the superstar. In a more quaint city of Gavle, Sweden, where center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Christian Djoos grew up, the celebrations felt more intimate and low-key.
All that being said, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the scene of Ovechkin bringing the Stanley Cup to Red Square. He didn’t have any security, so the few reporters following him, his agent, a Capitals staffer and the two Hockey Hall of Fame trophy minders were charged with protecting him and the trophy from the considerable crowd that formed. But you got an appreciation for his popularity there by how many people just wanted to touch him or the Stanley Cup.
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