The Washington Capitals enter training camp for the 2011-12 season with one of the most complete rosters they’ve had in recent memory. The Capitals are a little older and more experienced at every position, giving Coach Bruce Boudreau plenty of options for line combinations, defensive pairings and rotations in goal.
That flexibility, though, also brings a new set of challenges. With the team’s depth putting individual ice time at a premium and with seven players at least 30 years old, Boudreau will be managing egos as much as searching for successful lineups.
From divvying up ice time among defensemen to determining how many starts to give each goaltender and allocating responsibility among forwards, Boudreau will be juggling possibilities throughout training camp and the preseason.
“We’ve all got the same common goal,” Boudreau said, downplaying any concern. “We’re all going to do the right thing”
And all this comes against the backdrop of the Capitals trumpeting a more serious tone, particularly toward conditioning and preparation. To that end, players received letters early this summer warning them to expect an Albert Haynesworth-like timed fitness test with controlled recovery intervals at the start of camp.
One of the biggest questions to answer over the course of the preseason will be who earns the final spot on the 23-man roster, assuming Tom Poti is placed on the long-term injury list. Prospects Mattias Sjogren and Cody Eakin will be in a tight competition with established American Hockey League players Mathieu Perreault, Christian Hanson, Ryan Potulny and Chris Bourque.
Whether that vacancy is expressly for a third-line center or another role among the forwards might hinge upon whether Brooks Laich is slotted into the lineup most often as a center or wing. To be certain, General Manager George McPhee has brought together players that Boudreau can rotate for numerous combinations like a Rubik’s cube, but the preseason will offer a glimpse at what the pair believes could be the most efficient combinations.
“That’s one of Bruce’s strengths,” McPhee said. “He’s very good at coming up with combinations that provide the right mix depending on the situation and doing things during games when it’s necessary, if things aren’t working. It’s good to have that versatility, it can keep teams off balance.
Then there’s the question of who will see the most time on the top line, skating with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Each of the past two years, veteran Mike Knuble was all but guaranteed that prominent spot, but with the addition of Troy Brouwerand Joel Ward, both of whom can play on the right side, the 39-year-old winger knows nothing will be handed to him.
“That’s reality, but I want to show I’m in the position to be there again,” Knuble said. “As a player, you just want to be put somewhere you can succeed. Nobody wants to just kind of fall into place around other guys, you want to show what you can do.”
On defense, there will be seven players jockeying for time in the lineup and it already looks as though John Erskineand Jeff Schultzwill compete for a sixth spot. Regardless of who wins that individual battle, however, the task of spreading ice time will not be easy among several blueliners who are accustomed to playing upwards of 20 minutes per game in Mike Green,John Carlson,Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik.
Inevitably, given Boudreau’s preference to matching a left-handed and right-handed shot on each pairing, someone will wind up on the outside looking in.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work yet,” Boudreau said. “You got to figure that [Karl] Alzner and Carlson are set. You just have to find combinations for the other two” pairings.
In goal, Boudreau already has given benefit of the doubt to 12-year NHL veteran Tomas Vokoun, but in order for Michal Neuvirth to continue moving forward in his development, he’ll likely need 20-30 starts. Then there’s the question of how much leeway Boudreau would give Vokoun, who hasn’t played fewer than 57 games in each of the past four seasons, were to struggle.
Boudreau’s desire to go with the hot hand in net during his tenure in Washington is well-documented, but Vokoun’s experience may force him to alter that strategy.
The answers to all these questions will develop over the next 18 days, until opening-day rosters are set Oct. 5.
“They’re all willing to do what it takes to win,” Boudreau said. “That’s the number one thing. My history tells me I’ve moved an awful lot of people around and we’ve had successes doing it, so I don’t think that will change.”