The Washington Capitals entered the final weekend of the preseason still very much a team to be determined. With several roster decisions and at least six cuts remaining, Coach Adam Oates wants to use every last exhibition game to experiment with line combinations, use players outside their comfort zones and take as long a look at those on the bubble as possible.
In the Capitals’ penultimate preseason game Friday against the Philadelphia Flyers, Alex Ovechkin recorded a pair of power-play goals to fuel a 6-3 win at Verizon Center. But two forwards whose roles are much less certain took advantage of the opportunity to stand out.
Eric Fehr, playing his second game back on the wing after being tried at center, recorded two goals for the second consecutive game. And rookie Tom Wilson continued his aggressive lobbying campaign to play in the NHL with a goal, his third of the preseason, and an overpowering showing in a fight.
“We’re really just trying to figure out what we’re going to do to start the year and how we’re going to get into our groove with the guys we have and the decisions we have to make,” Oates said. “Trying to give [General Manager] George [McPhee] as many opportunities to look at guys in different situations and experiment a little bit and just try to figure out the puzzle.”
Both Fehr and Wilson are in the mix to be among the bottom six forwards but have very different scenarios playing out this preseason.
An established veteran, Fehr, 28, is expected to make the regular season roster. His position remains uncertain. Oates opted to play Fehr at center in his first two exhibition appearances to see if the usual right wing could pick up the adjustments required of the most versatile position on the ice.
Fehr held his own as a pivot, but since returning to the wing he’s recorded four goals and an assist and shown a confidence with the puck when presented with scoring opportunities. Even though it was a short-lived trial, Oates hasn’t ruled out the possibility of using Fehr at center. Increasing roster flexibility is never a bad thing.
“Fehrsie asked me today ‘Is the experiment over?’ No,” Oates said. “You’re collecting information, you’re doing the best you can and you don’t want to set those guys back. But I said to Fehrsie, ‘You got [five] goals, you’re playing good hockey — don’t worry about it. We’re fine. I know what you can do on right wing.”
Fehr is open to all options.
“I was starting to feel pretty comfortable at center,” Fehr said earlier this week. “I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen next practice, next game, where I’m going to be. I felt comfortable back on the wing but I enjoy center. It will be interesting to see.”
Conversely Wilson, 19, doesn’t know whether he will spend the season playing in the NHL or in the Canadian Hockey League, where top teenagers develop against players their own age.
The 16th overall pick in 2012, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson possesses the size that allows him to hold his own against full-grown NHLers, but whether he’s ready for the grind of his first professional season is tough to gauge.
Against the Flyers, Wilson showed he could handle one of the league’s most rough-and-tumble teams, scoring a smart goal when he drove to the net to receive a feed from Mikhail Grabovski and pummeling Brayden Schenn in a bout. His grit could be an asset in the Capitals’ new division as they prepare for more grinding, physical games.
“I’ve done a pretty good job so far,” said Wilson, who has played in five preseason games. “But I’ve got hopefully one more day to prove. We’ll see what happens.”
Capitals notes: Grabovski finished the game despite having a bloody nose after being elbowed by Flyers pest Zac Rinaldo, who received a five-minute major and game misconduct. . . . Brooks Laich (left hip flexor) skated Friday after missing the previous two days of practice. It’s uncertain whether he will play in the preseason finale Saturday at Chicago, but he could suit up for the regular season opener on Oct. 1. . . . NHL teams must have their rosters down to no more than 23 players by 3 p.m. Monday.