The Capitals are a week and three preseason games into training camp, with another exhibition contest set for Friday night at Carolina. With Washington returning the vast majority of its lineup from last season’s run to the Stanley Cup, there won’t be many surprises on the opening-night roster. Today’s mailbag explains how waivers factor into some of the decisions about who stays with the big club and who gets sent down to the American Hockey League, and it also touches on Riley Barber, what to expect from new Coach Todd Reirden and whether veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik will be keeping the “A” on his chest.
Players of a certain experience level require passing through waivers to be sent down to the American Hockey League, which means that the 30 other NHL teams have an opportunity to claim that player. The selection order is typically determined by record, with the worst team getting first dibs. Of note for the Capitals, prospects still on entry-level contracts won’t need to pass through waivers, so winger Sergei Shumakov, goaltender Ilya Samsonov and defenseman Lucas Johansen, just to name a few, can be reassigned without any risk. Winger Jakub Vrana is also waivers-exempt, but considering he’s slotted to play second-line left wing, he’s not going anywhere.
So, how much does this matter? Quite a bit. Teams don’t like losing players they’ve invested in for nothing, and the Capitals have always been especially cautious about waivers. Three years ago, winger Stanislav Galiev stayed on the roster for pretty much the whole season, but he struggled to crack the lineup, appearing in just 24 games. He probably would’ve been better served playing regularly in the AHL, but Washington feared another team would claim him if it tried to send him down.
On the other hand, the Capitals really didn’t want to waive forward Chandler Stephenson during training camp last season, but he was beaten out for a roster spot, so while they waited an extra few days to send him down — teams largely had their rosters set by that point and may not have had room to add him — they eventually did it. Stephenson was recalled a few weeks later and later admitted it was a “bitter” experience that jarred him ahead of what was ultimately a successful rookie season with Washington.
For this training camp, it’s worth noting that forwards Travis Boyd, Nic Dowd, Riley Barber and Nathan Walker and defenseman Madison Bowey all require waivers. That pretty much guarantees that Boyd, Dowd and Bowey will all be on the opening-night roster, especially since all three are on one-way contracts (meaning they’re paid the same whether they’re in the NHL or AHL). Again, as we saw with Stephenson a year ago, waivers don’t determine everything, but they tend to dictate a lot of roster decisions. I don’t think the Capitals are quite as worried about teams claiming Barber and Walker, though Washington already has lost Walker on waivers once. But if they play well in the preseason, the waivers factor could become relevant. Once a player passes through waivers, he can freely go up and down between the AHL and NHL until he plays 10 games or spends 30 days on the NHL roster.
Barber might have been the most noticeable Capitals player on the ice in the team’s preseason home opener Tuesday night against Boston. He finished with a goal and nine shots in a little under 16 minutes of ice time. Barber played in three games with Washington two years ago, but he has been hurt by some late-season injuries — a hand injury that cost him 35 games in 2016-17 and a shoulder injury he suffered in March that sidelined him the remainder of last season.
Coach Todd Reirden said Barber’s overall speed is “a step quicker.”
“Riley has taken advantage of his opportunity so far,” he said. “I think he’s done a good job with his wall play as well, which is so important for wingers. We’ve got such talent through the middle of the ice that we’ve got to have guys get the puck out of the wall if we want to have success.”
On the surface, Washington doesn’t have any openings on the wings, and I already suspect the Capitals are keeping Boyd and Dowd. But if the Capitals decide to keep 14 forwards, Barber could have an opportunity to stick on the roster and perhaps force his way into the lineup at some point. He’ll have another opportunity to impress in Friday night’s exhibition game at Carolina.
Here’s a fairly telling quote from Reirden, speaking of 23-year-old forward Andre Burakovsky earlier in the week: “I think that he’s dealing with a little bit of a different situation with me, too — just a different personality and way that I choose to deal with young players and help them. Coming at things from a little bit of different angles in terms of player development is always been something that’s been very important to me.”
I always felt the notion that Barry Trotz disliked playing young players was unfair, and last season, when four rookies were regularly in the lineup, was a good example. But Trotz was way more willing to scratch one of them than a veteran, which makes sense to a degree; the potential fallout in the locker room is lesser. But one of Reirden’s qualifications for the head-coaching job is his track record for developing players, from his work with John Carlson to Dmitry Orlov to Christian Djoos. The Capitals’ roster won’t be as young as it was a year ago, but Reirden is expected to give the less-experienced players a longer leash.
Considering Brooks Orpik was only off the roster for about a month this summer, he never lost his title as an alternate captain, and I’ve been assured it’s still his. The 37-year-old is incredibly respected in the locker room, and especially with the team coming off a Stanley Cup, stripping him of the letter wouldn’t make much sense.
But Orpik is on a one-year deal, and this could be his last season with the team, so eventually his alternate captain duties will pass to someone else. T.J. Oshie and John Carlson have worn the “A” when one of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom or Orpik has been out of the lineup, so they’re the front-runners. Fortunately for the Capitals, there are several good options.
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