Coach Bruce Boudreau entered training camp watching and waiting for one of several hopefuls to assert himself in the race for the lone spot up for grabs on the Washington Capitals’ roster. Through the first 11 days of the preseason, he’s still waiting for a front-runner to emerge.
Monday night at Verizon Center, three of the four contenders for that position were in the lineup and played a key role in a 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, who dressed little of their NHL roster.
Playing on a line together, Cody Eakin, Mathieu Perreault and Chris Bourque recorded a goal, a goal and an assist and three assists, respectively, helping the Capitals capture their first victory of the preseason. The only problem is, each had a positive showing with the help of the others.
“They all played really good,” Boudreau said, declining to single out any one of the three forwards. “They all competed, they did their job, they played defensively pretty well. It was a good game for all three of them.”
Over the weekend, the competition for the final spot was whittled down when the Capitals assigned dark-horse candidates Ryan Potulny and Christian Hanson to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, leaving Bourque, Eakin, Perreault and Mattias Sjogren to try and rise above each other.
“We’re just waiting for somebody to say, ‘It’s mine and somebody take it away from me,’ ” Boudreau said earlier this week. “It’s out there. Guys know it’s out there.”
There’s some uncertainty to precisely which spot the Capitals are looking to fill, and part of that depends on where Boudreau slots more established NHL players such as the multifaceted Brooks Laich. That said, whoever remains when the regular season kicks off will likely serve as a depth forward on the third or fourth line.
Even Boudreau has admitted that there’s not one particular trait the Capitals are seeking.
“It’s the intangibles of size, strength, hockey sense, winning battles versus losing battles,” Boudreau said. “That encompasses it. It’s not one thing, it’s everything. . . . If there was one thing only, then automatically you’d have one guy that would take it.”
Bourque and Perreault are familiar faces, established AHL forwards who have spent time in Washington and are well known to the front office staff. Both players would be required to pass through waivers if they were sent to the minors.
Bourque, 25, returned to the Capitals with a one-year contract, focused on sticking in the NHL after spending last season in Europe. A top-line scorer at the AHL level, the undersize Bourque (5 feet 8, 174 pounds) hasn’t been able to establish the same presence in the NHL. He believes he’s learned more about how to make himself noticed here this time around, though.
“You want to reinforce what they know and show them that you’ve acquired some other skills,” Bourque said. “I think I’m a lot better than when I was [at] 19 years old, 20 years old, so I think maturing is hopefully going to be showing in my game. I want to show that I can bring a little extra to the table.”
Perreault, 23, played a career-high 35 games last season in Washington and recorded 14 points. The quick-skating center, however, struggles to maintain a consistent level of play when the Capitals recall him.
“They know what I’m capable of doing,” Perreault said. “It’s just a matter of doing it every night.”
Meanwhile, Eakin and Sjogren are looking to jump straight to the NHL as they begin their professional careers in North America.
Sjogren, at 6-3, 220, has the most size of the group and would add a different look down the middle, where the Capitals’ centers are slightly smaller in stature. The 23-year-old Swede has also won 16 of 25 faceoffs in two preseason games. His skating leaves something to be desired, though, and there are bound to be some growing pains as he adjusts to the North American game.
Then there’s Eakin, who can play all three forward positions. The Capitals have been trying him out with different linemates at each forward spot. He is attempting to make a sizable jump from juniors to the NHL.
“You can get away with doing some stuff against 17-year-old young men rather than doing stuff against 28-year-old established players,” Boudreau explained. “We’ve seen him get caught defensively a couple of times in the wrong position, but at the same time, when we’ve showed him he’s picked it up and he’s been able to correct it.”
Capitals notes: Laich, who left practice early Sunday after feeling “tight,” according to Boudreau, did not skate Monday. Boudreau expected Laich would be back on the ice Tuesday. . . . Jason Chimera, who hadn’t skated since Friday, was back on the ice and said he felt fine after precautionary rest.