With two games left in the preseason, the Washington Capitals are still solidifying their opening night roster. And while constructing their ideal forward lines has presented challenges, piecing together the blue line has been more straightforward.
John Carlson, Martin Fehervary, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk return, but Justin Schultz departed for Seattle. Matt Irwin, newcomer Erik Gustafsson and Lucas Johansen are the candidates to win that spot, with Gustafsson the front-runner.
Gustafsson, who signed a one-year, $800,000 contract in July, has been practicing with van Riemsdyk on the third pairing, and his offensive style seems to mesh well with Washington’s defensive structure. (The 30-year-old has played 309 NHL games, notching 32 goals and 117 assists.) He played in two of the first four preseason games and is expected to make at least one more appearance before Washington’s Oct. 12 season opener against Boston. McCarthy said last week that he would prefer a veteran to occupy the third-pair role to start the season.
“You’re in a situation that, once the season starts, you have to win games,” he said. “It isn’t training camp anymore. So you are looking at players with NHL experience. That would be your first go-to, but we are open to see how it goes here.”
If Gustafsson wins the role, the Capitals still have decisions to make about their depth — will they keep seven or eight defensemen, and who are the front-runners there? Irwin and Johansen seem to be the top picks, but it’s not clear who is first in line.
Johansen, the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2016, is the younger brother of Nashville Predators star Ryan Johansen and has had a slow start to his pro career. The 24-year-old had to wait until last season to make his NHL debut — and he only played one game after he was called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.
McCarthy said Saturday that Washington’s staff was happy with Johansen’s progress last year and that he’s a player the team is looking at “for the future.” If Johansen is not on the opening night roster, he will have to clear waivers before he can be sent back to Hershey.
“I feel like I’m trending in the right direction,” Johansen said Friday. “Last year, for me, I wanted to really take a good step forward and keep that trend going and establish myself as an NHL player, so just trying to get better every day and progress.”
Irwin, 34, was a reliable seventh defenseman last season. He signed with Washington in July 2021 and re-signed for one more year this summer. He played 17 games last season, notching a goal and three assists.
“We got a lot of great depth here, a lot of good players, so it’s been a good competitive camp and everyone has been pushing each other and making each other better,” van Riemsdyk said.
The Capitals have other options if Irwin and Johansen don’t pan out. Washington signed Gabriel Carlsson to a one-year, two-way contract in the offseason. The 25-year-old has played 75 NHL games since 2016-17, all with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He will start the season with Hershey.
Bobby Nardella is in the mix, too. The 26-year-old has been slowed by injuries early in his professional career but was solid in Washington’s preseason game last week at Philadelphia. The Capitals also have Vincent Iorio, a second-round pick in 2021. The 19-year-old had a “good camp, impressed everybody,” McCarthy said, but would benefit from time in the AHL.
Alex Alexeyev, the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2018 who made his NHL debut last year, was supposed to be an option to start the season. But after he had shoulder surgery in July, the earliest the 22-year-old is projected to return is late October.