Travis Boyd had a year left on his contract with the Capitals when July 1 arrived, but the first day of NHL free agency still brought uneasiness. He had finally broken through to the big leagues last year, spending all of it in Washington — though not always in the lineup. This campaign was supposed to feature more stability, but then three bottom-six forward signings spelled anything but.

“I’m not going to lie and say I was happy seeing that. I mean, I wasn’t,” Boyd said. “Ultimately, I can read between the lines and see that the more people who were signing, that’s just more people I need to beat out to have my job back and to stay up here full-time.

“I don’t want to be in the situation I was in last year. I don’t want to be going in and out of the lineup and playing three games, sitting for four, playing for two. I want to play every night. I think I’ve proven last year that I can play in this league every night, and my big thing this year is just trying to establish myself even more and become an everyday player.”

A first-round playoff exit last season left the Capitals underwhelmed with their depth, something they addressed with the free agent additions of Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. Panik is expected to slot in at third-line right wing, replacing Brett Connolly, who signed with the Florida Panthers; Nic Dowd presumably will retain his role as the team’s fourth-line center, with Hathaway and Leipsic the front-runners to play beside him. That means that after Boyd had five goals and 15 assists in 53 games as a rookie, his job is in jeopardy.

But Boyd might have a different way into the lineup to start the season. With center Evgeny Kuznetsov suspended the first three games for “inappropriate conduct” after testing positive for cocaine at the world championships in May, Washington will be temporarily shorthanded up the middle. Lars Eller will almost certainly move up to the second line, meaning the Capitals need a short-term solution for their third trio. Consider Boyd the favorite.

“You never want to see [a suspension] happen, especially to a teammate, and I love Kuzy — one of the nicest guys in that locker room,” Boyd said. “But I mean, from my standpoint of it, absolutely that's a chance — three games early in the year to hopefully get a chance to show what I can do. And if I get that chance, I’ve got to take advantage of it.”

Though Boyd was used more on the wing down the stretch last season, he’s a natural center, and the Capitals have turned to him for similar spot duty before. He even briefly centered a top line with captain Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson when Kuznetsov was injured two seasons ago. Coach Todd Reirden listed Garrett Pilon and Michael Sgarbossa — neither played in the NHL last year — as other possible third-line center options, as well as Connor McMichael, Washington’s 18-year-old first-round pick in the most recent draft.

“They understand the situation,” Reirden said. “This is something that was discussed with all players that were involved, that there may be a suspension. … They have to be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity they get and showcase themselves. There’s a number of players and a number of different directions we can go in.”

Boyd’s speedy skating creates offensive opportunities, but he went into the summer wanting to get stronger without slowing down. He said he gained roughly 10 pounds of “good weight,” maintaining his body fat percentage while adding muscle so he wouldn’t be pushed off the puck as often. That meant cutting out sugar all summer and opting for water while friends ordered beer.

“I mean, it's grown men [in the NHL], so if you're in the corner and going up against a 6-foot-3 [defenseman] who's 225 or 220 or even 215, it was tough for me for where I was at last year,” he said.

He also struggled with faceoffs, winning just 36 percent of the 210 he took last year. In Washington’s preseason opener against Chicago on Monday night, Boyd centered a first line with Wilson and Leipsic, and while he was officially credited with winning just three of nine draws, Reirden said the Capitals’ internal metrics had him at above 50 percent. He also scored a power-play goal with a shot from the left faceoff circle, a role that’ll be open on Washington’s second unit after the departure of defenseman Matt Niskanen.

“That’s what he was able to show us last year — the ability to, when he was given the opportunity, convert,” Reirden said.

That bodes well for Boyd in his audition to start the season as Washington’s substitute center, a first crack at a lineup he doesn’t intend to leave.

“Last year was a lot of learning experiences for me, just coming to the rink every day and practicing against these guys,” Boyd said. “And I think the one big thing for me is just my mentality and my attitude when I’m at this rink now is just a little more comfortable, feeling a lot more settled in and confident around here. And I think that translates over to the ice and hoping that I can continue to carry that confidence through this training camp. And if I do that, everything will be well.”

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