Step inside the Washington Capitals’ dressing room at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, and the subtle changes start to jump out one by one.
The panels on the wall of each player’s stall are a new, bold red. Cushioned blue seats replaced the plain wood ones. Both are fairly modest improvements, and at its core, the room remains quite similar. At the center of a parallel remodel is Capitals Coach Todd Reirden, looking to build off his first full season as head coach. In a way, this season represents Reirden’s first real fresh start with the team.
Last year, Reirden took over a group looking to keep everything the same as it was when the Capitals won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Now, after a considerable number of personnel changes following a first-round playoff exit, Reirden has the opportunity to put his stamp on the team.
“It’s definitely a different entity this year, [and] every time it is going to play out a little bit different,” Reirden said. “You don’t have a perfect blueprint from the season before, but certainly you can use different examples from the prior years to help you learn and get better.”
With a lengthy offseason, Reirden had a prolonged period to step away from the game and reflect, analyzing the highs and lows, which decisions worked and which didn’t.
Moving past the weight of trying to defend the Cup as a rookie head coach, Reirden will manage a roster with several offseason additions, tasked with slotting them in the positions best suited to enhance their own games and fulfill team needs.
Systemically on the ice, he will continue to add different looks and nuances that “involve playing a little bit more of an aggressive game in some different areas.”
“There’s a number of new bodies, and it was important that we continue to build on the things that we’ve been able to accomplish here the last five seasons,” Reirden said. “There are definitely going to be some small adjustments and some tweaks to some things that will allow us to play more to our strengths."
The question of how the new additions fit into the lineup will start to be answered during training camp, and all players aside from defenseman Michal Kempny, who is still recovering from a torn hamstring, are expected to be healthy when camp begins Friday.
The top two forward lines remain intact, while the bottom two saw significant turnover with the additions of Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. General Manager Brian MacLellan targeted depth forwards in free agency, so Travis Boyd’s and Chandler Stephenson’s spots on the roster look to be in jeopardy.
Among the defensemen, the losses of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen combined with the addition of Radko Gudas will bring a slightly new look. There will be a training camp battle to fill the left spot on the third pair, with Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos expected to fight for the role. Top prospects such as Alex Alexeyev also will be viable options as the season goes on. Nick Jensen, who was acquired at last season’s trade deadline, is expected to earn an opportunity to move into a top-four role, and Gudas is, too. If Kempny is ready to go for the Oct. 2 season opener, which remains the team’s hope, Reirden wants a more consistent look from the blue line this season.
“We really had a situation losing Kempny last year,” Reirden said. “We had to adjust some things, and you know, putting players in different spots and [figuring out] what would allow those players — left shot, right shot, whatever it was — to be in a situation where we put the best actual players in the lineup. I think it sets up a little bit better this year with us for righties and lefties if we can all be healthy here.”
Braden Holtby remains the Capitals’ No. 1 goaltender, but the backup position, occupied by Pheonix Copley last season, will be an open competition during camp. Top prospect Ilya Samsonov will attempt to win the job and make his NHL debut.
“It’s a competition, and Pheonix, you know, did a great job of being in that role last year, and there’s no question that there’s a young, highly touted player [Samsonov] that finished the year behind him last year and wants to have a chance to stay here in Washington, and he’s going to get that opportunity,” Reirden said. “This is Pheonix’s responsibility to continue to improve and get better and secure that spot, and it’s Samsonov’s job to come in and prove that he should be here.”
If all of the newcomers weren’t enough to sort out, a tight salary cap squeeze will force the team to make some tough roster choices before the season opener in St. Louis. The Capitals are more than $1.3 million over the $81.5 million salary cap, and they almost certainly will make a trade or be forced to waive a player they would otherwise want to keep.
But even with the salary cap constraints lingering as a question mark, Reirden remains confident about how the roster will shake out and about the adjustments he will make. For now, as always, training camp will be a place for experimentation.
“You can utilize and gain from experience that you’ve gone through, but just seems the same day doesn’t repeat itself very often,” Reirden said. “I think this year in that respect is going to be certainly different than it was last year. It’s my second year going through it as a head coach, same with my staff. I think that’s just going to help us continue to improve.”