GLENDALE, Ariz. — Twenty-eight games into the season, the Washington Capitals have weathered some early season inconsistency and a bevy of injuries to sit atop the Metropolitan Division standings with a 16-9-3 record. This edition of the mailbag answers whether the team will be visiting the White House as the reigning Stanley Cup champions, what led to the Capitals and Russian winger Sergei Shumakov parting ways, whether Tom Wilson should have fought Vegas’s Ryan Reaves early in Tuesday’s game and what’s Pheonix Copley’s future is in Washington.
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It’s tradition that most championship teams visit the White House, though there’s been more controversy around that under this administration. President Trump canceled the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles’ visit to the White House in June after some players said they would skip the ceremony to protest the president and his rhetoric. When the Golden State Warriors won the 2017 NBA championship, multiple players, including Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, said they would not visit the White House. They were later uninvited by Trump.
I do expect the Capitals to eventually visit. Their schedule is relatively flexible since they’re the rare championship team based in D.C., and with the recent midterm elections, I suspect there just hasn’t been a time that’s convenient for both sides. But I’ve been told the team has been in communication with the White House and a date just hasn’t been set yet. There’s been some rumor of a January or February visit, but nothing has been confirmed.
Forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly have said they wouldn’t attend a visit to the White House, and while they might not be the only players who take that stance, nearly every player asked about it after last season said they’d want to go. Here’s what owner Ted Leonsis said about it on Oct. 3:
“What I have said is, we’re in Washington, D.C., and the players and the coaching staff have to decide. I’m not going to influence, and if we go to the White House, I will go to the White House. But they haven’t made it to that conversation and a vote yet. . . . I’m sure at some point as the season gets started, there’ll be a team meeting, and they’ll talk about it and come out and tell us what to do.”
The Capitals are placing Russian winger Sergei Shumakov on unconditional waivers, meaning the two sides are parting ways. Washington signed Shumakov this summer after his Kontinental Hockey League contract with CSKA Moscow was terminated, and the team was hopeful his KHL production, 17 goals and 23 assists in 47 games last season, would carry over to the North American game. But he didn’t show well in training camp, struggling with the pace of play here, and less than a month after the team reassigned him to the American Hockey League, he got injured.
It was ultimately his decision to terminate the contract so he could return to Russia, but the Capitals weren’t exactly begging him to stay either. It was a low-risk signing to begin with — Shumakov was on an entry-level, two-way deal — and it just didn’t work out. It’s not like Washington spent a draft pick on him and then worked to develop him for years.
Reaves’s blindside hit on Wilson in the second period of Tuesday’s game in Vegas was through the shoulder, but Wilson’s helmet popped off on the collision and he then hit his head against the ice. Wilson didn’t play against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night because of a concussion, and with the Capitals not practicing on Friday, I don’t expect he’ll be in the lineup against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday either. Reaves was assessed a five-minute major for interference and also ejected from the game.
Coach Todd Reirden said Reaves was targeting Wilson all game, and that much was pretty obvious. Part of Reaves’s role for the Golden Knights is to get under opponents’ skin. Should Wilson have fought him in the first period as tensions were clearly escalating? In my opinion, no. I think Wilson has become more conscious of his role on the team — a top-line forward who entered Tuesday’s game with eight goals — and in a close game, he probably didn’t think it would help his team to be off the ice for five minutes. In a fight between Reaves, a fourth-liner, and Wilson, that’s a better trade for Vegas than it is for Washington. The more valuable a player is to your team, the less you want him fighting because of the risk of injury, especially to the hands.
Unless the two teams meet in the Stanley Cup finals again, they won’t see each other for the rest of the season, and if Wilson really feels there’s a score to settle the next time he and Reaves are on the ice together, I suspect he’ll want to do it himself.
With Copley having so little NHL experience going into this season, there was an expectation that Braden Holtby would have to carry the goaltending tandem early on. But Copley has won six of the nine games he’s started, and there’s not much more you can ask of a backup goaltender. On Thursday night against the Coyotes, he kept the game close as the Capitals struggled at the start.
“I don’t want to have him sitting for too long,” Reirden said. “I thought he made some good saves. Tough to give up the chance we do on the goal-against right away, and he hung in there. That’s not easy for a backup goalie who’s trying to find his way in the National Hockey League. . . . He was really solid from that point moving forward. That’s a huge, huge win for our team given the circumstances.”
The question of his future with Washington is interesting because there’s Holtby’s future to consider, too. Holtby’s contract runs through the 2019-20 season, and he’s due a pay raise on his current $6.1 million cap hit. With 2015 first-round pick Ilya Samsonov playing his first season in the American Hockey League, I think the Capitals want to see what they have in him before they make a decision on how to proceed with Holtby. The plan as of now would seem to be that Samsonov steps into the backup goaltender role next season, but Copley, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, is making a case for himself, and if there isn’t a place for him with the Capitals, then this is a good audition for a different team.
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