As Lucas Johansen watched the Washington Capitals’ offseason unfold from afar, he tipped his cap to General Manager Brian MacLellan and read the writing on the wall. Coming off a franchise-first Stanley Cup, MacLellan was able to re-sign John Carlson and Michal Kempny after trading veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik to get his $5.5 million salary cap hit off the books, only to sign him to a cheaper contract once the Colorado Avalanche bought out his old deal.
The result was a championship defense returning in tact for another run. It also meant Johansen would be attending training camp with no real chance of making the NHL roster.
“It’s tough,” Johansen said. “Mac did a great job keeping a Stanley Cup team together, which hats off to him because that’s really hard to do. As a guy in here, you just want to be competitive. You just want to show them that if they need you, you’re going to be relied on to make the step up.”
Over the past four drafts, the Capitals have made 22 selections, and they’ve used 11 of them on defensemen, including their two most recent first-round picks — Johansen in 2016 and Alex Alexeyev this past summer. Meanwhile, Washington has steadily shored up its defense and locked up much of it for the long term. The team’s top four — Carlson, Kempny, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov — are all under contract through at least the 2020-21 season. Orpik is on a one-year deal, and while this might be his last season in Washington, the Capitals still have 24-year-old Christian Djoos and 23-year-old Madison Bowey, who both played the majority of last season as rookies and are expected to handle more responsibility going forward.
Maintaining blue-line stability after winning the Stanley Cup is a good thing, but it has created a logjam for the organization’s prospects. MacLellan pointed to 2015 second-round pick Jonas Siegenthaler, 2013 seventh-rounder Tyler Lewington and Johansen as “all ready to start playing some games and establish themselves as NHLers.”
“I think we’re as deep as we’ve ever been on defense this year,” MacLellan said.
With Washington coming off a short summer, meaning less time to recover and train, after the long playoff run, the team might be more vulnerable to early-season injuries — Carlson and center Lars Eller were nursing minor lower-body injuries before training camp even started — so Coach Todd Reirden has told eager prospects that the competition in the preseason isn’t just to make the opening-night roster. Bowey can attest that the first call-up can be just as important. He impressed in training camp a year ago, but in part because he was exempt from waivers and could be sent to the American Hockey League without any risk, Bowey was one of the last cuts. Niskanen then broke his thumb just five games into the season, and Bowey was back, ultimately playing in 51 games.
“Anything can happen,” Johansen said. “You don’t wish an injury on anybody, but it is a hockey season and things happen, so if the opportunity arises, then I’ll be ready.”
Johansen made his preseason debut Tuesday, playing to Niskanen’s left and logging more than 20 minutes of ice time. Alexeyev was in the lineup, too; although the Capitals showered the 18-year-old with praise after an impressive first summer in the organization, he was among the first round of cuts the next morning so he could return to his Canadian junior team for the start of its training camp. Siegenthaler seems to be highest in the pecking order of defensive prospects, and MacLellan said last week that the team has “a lot of faith in” the 21-year-old Swiss.
He also noted that Johansen “needs games this year” after spending all of last season in the AHL. Half of the first-round picks in 2016 have made their NHL debut, but he’s part of the half still waiting.
“I try not to look around, because you do get anxious,” Johansen said. “I definitely want to be playing in the NHL. Everybody here does.”
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