The next 20 minutes held so many answers about Connor Hobbs’s future.
He stepped into the office and took a seat across from Capitals Coach Barry Trotz. Five days of the team’s annual developmental camp for prospects had passed, and the purpose of this meeting was to review Hobbs’s progress and advise him on areas to work on this offseason.
Since Hobbs was drafted in the fifth round two years ago, he has been navigating a patient process through the minor league ranks as a long-shot NHL hopeful, projected to play in the American Hockey League next season. But with changes coming to the Capitals, that 20-minute conversation informed Hobbs that he could shoot for more.
“Going forward here, we’re going to have some ability for people to get opportunity,” Trotz told him. “I would put yourself in that competition with the other guys. . . . I would put yourself in a group of guys that are competing for a job because we’re going to have some holes there.”
The Capitals had experienced little turnover over the past two years, but salary cap constraints have created more job openings in the lineup entering this upcoming season than since Trotz was hired in 2014. With the loss of Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft and the free agent departure of Karl Alzner, the team’s defensive corps will be forced to welcome two fresh faces after good health and unchanged personnel made that unit a picture of stability a season ago.
More than half of the team’s maximum salary cap space of $75 million is committed to six players — Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen — through at least the next three seasons. Washington already has had to trade 26-year-old forward Marcus Johansson this offseason to clear cap room, and the organization will have to count on inexpensive talent in key positions of the lineup to remain competitive.
For the Capitals, the process of developing draft picks now takes on even greater importance because prospects still on their entry-level contracts, such as Hobbs, could find themselves contending for an NHL role.
“We always said that we were going to slow-cook them,” Trotz said. “We’ve had guys that have been down [in the minors] for a couple years. I think there’ll be lots of opportunity for those guys now.”
Hobbs, a 20-year-old defenseman, has spent the past two seasons playing for his Canadian junior team, the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. According to TSN, roughly 20 percent of fifth-round picks from 2000 to 2009 managed to log at least 50 career games in the NHL. On the Capitals’ roster last season, no player drafted by Washington had been selected later than the fourth round.
Hobbs’s individual meeting with coaches and management a year ago at developmental camp put him on a path of potentially becoming the rare late-round selection to break through. That meeting didn’t have quite the same message of encouragement as the one with Trotz last week. Instead, Capitals associate coach Todd Reirden gave Hobbs an ultimatum: The next time he comes to Washington he should be in better physical shape — or else.
“With the development of players, sometimes you’re in a situation where you need to challenge guys,” Reirden said. “[Hobbs] does a lot of good things on the ice, but he wasn’t giving himself the best chance to have success, so sometimes you need to take a firmer stance with some players.”
“Time to wake up,” Hobbs said. “I thank him a lot for that.”
Hobbs came into developmental camp last year weighing 215 pounds, but the more concerning part was that his body fat was at roughly 15 percent. The week is designed to send prospects home with good habits for a future in professional hockey. On the day Hobbs had his meeting with Trotz last week, he arrived at Kettler Capitals Iceplex at 6:53 a.m.
By 7:05 a.m., Hobbs logged that day’s weight and started to stretch. Hobbs then joined the group for a series of circuit training exercises led by Capitals strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish. A yoga class followed, a look of strain crossing some players’ faces as they settled into pigeon pose, a hip-opening exercise, for several minutes. The instructor suggested they try that one at home three times a week. And then it was 9 a.m., time for a video session on Washington’s playing systems and still early in a packed schedule.
Before Hobbs left Washington a year ago, he connected with team nutritionist Sue Saunders, who devised a diet for him to follow. Not a fan of quinoa, he would mix it into his smoothies so he wouldn’t have to taste it. “At first, it really sucked,” Hobbs said. Rather than working out in a group, Hobbs opted for one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer to cut down on the distractions.
A year later, Hobbs weighs 199 pounds with 7 percent body fat.
“I didn’t realize I was in that bad of shape until I got here and they did the body-fat pinches,” Hobbs said. “You know, I’d get on the ice, and it was like, ‘Wow, I am bad right now.’ I was almost embarrassed about it.”
At Hobbs’s individual meeting this year, Trotz told him to maintain his current 6-foot, 199-pound frame. The Capitals believe Hobbs already has a more lethal shot than several of their NHL defensemen, and his 31 goals in the Western Hockey League last season seem to support that. This summer’s task is to work on becoming a smoother skater so that he can better keep up in a league that’s becoming quicker.
Hobbs will be competing with prospects Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey and Tyler Lewington, all three of whom already have played in the American Hockey League for two years, as well as Lucas Johansen, the team’s 2016 first-round pick. With salary cap resources scarce, the Capitals are counting on wide-open competition among those five come training camp.
“Put yourself in a position to take someone’s job,” Trotz told Hobbs. “Earn the right. If you earn the right, then I’ll keep you, plain and simple.”
Hobbs smiled as he replied. “It’s that easy, eh?”