During the summer of 2010, the Washington Capitals elected to not sign a veteran free agent center, banking on the belief that rookie Marcus Johansson would be ready to step into the NHL spotlight.
It turned out to be the right move, as the 20-year-old Swede struggled early on before steadily improving in the second half. But when 24 prospects take the ice for rookie camp Sunday, there will be no shoo-in to start the season in Washington because the Capitals might not need one.
“Fortunately, we were right” about Johansson, General Manager George McPhee said. “But as you’re going through camp, you’re saying you hope this guy can do it, that he’s ready because you need him to be. We don’t necessarily have that issue this year with the roster. . . . There might be a young guy that emerges and makes our club, but it’s not as if we need a young player to.”
This offseason, McPhee assembled what he called one of the Washington’s “most complete” rosters, snagging five free agents and leaving precious few vacancies for others to claim in training camp. There also isn’t the presence of young players such as Johansson and John Carlson in 2010, Semyon Varlamov in 2009 or Nicklas Backstrom in 2007. Instead, the Capitals have enough depth at the NHL level that they can keep more prospects in the minors for extra seasoning.
Based on the number of players with one-way contracts, which pay an NHL salary regardless if a player is in the minors, and the expectation that defenseman Tom Poti will be placed on the long-term injury list, there is only one open slot on the Capitals’ 23-man roster.
“There might not be as many positions open, but there’s still one position that if somebody steps up, they’re going to be able to steal the job,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I think there’s quite a few guys that we could be looking at because we like to have the versatility of moving guys around.”
Rookie camp participants Cody Eakin, a 2009 draft pick, and Mattias Sjogren, a 23-year-old free agent who signed with Washington in June, are expected to compete for the open job along with seasoned American Hockey League players such as Mathieu Perreault, Christian Hanson and Chris Bourque once the main training camp opens next weekend.
Meanwhile, top-flight prospects Dmitry Orlov, 20, who will play his first full season in North America this year, and Stanislav Galiev, 19, who is still eligible to return to juniors, have been training at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for nearly a month. Both young Russians are expected to push the veterans slotted ahead of them on the depth chart and could earn lengthy looks during the preseason.
McPhee and Boudreau are vocal supporters of having players spend more time with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, and several current Capitals, including Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner, Carlson and Michal Neuvirth gained extra experience before taking up permanent residence in Washington. The ability to allow players time to develop more thoroughly before throwing them into the NHL fire, Boudreau said, isn’t to be underestimated.
“You see it with some teams now and it’s happened to every team at some stage where they needed to throw a player in there and see if he sinks or swims,” Boudreau said. “The time in the AHL never hurts them. Playing a lot of hockey in a winning environment, where the pressure is on to win — that’s not a negative thing in my mind — and we have the ability to do that.”
It’s possible that a young player could impress McPhee and Boudreau enough in camp to the point that they accelerate his development to make room for him on the roster. But this year, the Capitals’ plans don’t hinge on someone being ready.
“We like the situation we’re in with the young players,” McPhee said. “We don’t have to rush anyone and they can develop at the right pace.”