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5 position battles to watch as Capitals camp opens

5 position battles to watch as Capitals camp opens

As NHL hockey returns to Kettler Capitals Iceplex this week, there’s one thing that will differentiate this year’s Capitals training camp from recent years: competition for jobs.

Following an offseason that saw forwards Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik depart as well as defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk end up elsewhere, there are several holes in Washington's lineup as camp begins.

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So what are those jobs and who do I have in contention for them? Let’s take a look:

1—Top-six winger.

It’s safe to assume that Andre Burakovsky, an ascending 22-year-old who inked a two-year, $6 million extension this summer, is going to step into one of the spots vacated by Johansson and Williams. So, to me, the real question is who nabs the other spot?

The ideal candidate is 2014 first rounder Jakub Vrana, whose smooth skating stride, stick skill and shot give him all the tools a potential 25 goal scorer needs. We saw the flashes during his 21 games in Washington last season. But the question remains: will he listen to his coaches and become the detailed, consistent, defensively-aware player the organization wants him to be?

Vrana has the opportunity of a lifetime before him and, when it’s all said and done, I think he earns a spot in Washington. I did, however, find it interesting that he was placed with the prospects during the informal pre-camp skates while rookie defenseman Christian Djoos skated with the veterans. As much as the coaches want Vrana to succeed, that tells me they’re going to make the 21-year-old Czech earn it.

What if Vrana doesn’t seize the job as hoped? Coach Barry Trotz could turn to Brett Connolly and/or Tom Wilson. That, of course, would create trickledown effect by creating openings elsewhere in the lineup.   

2 and 3—A couple of bottom six wingers.

Assuming the top-nine ends up being Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Burakovsky, Vrana, Lars Eller, Connolly and Wilson, that leaves holes on the left and right side of Jay Beagle.

Here are the players I see battling for those spots: Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Nathan Walker, Anthony Peluso as well as a handful of prospects such as Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Liam O’Brien, Riley Barber and a few others.

The Caps really like Walker and I suspect management would love to see a homegrown prospect grab one, if not both, of those spots. But the team didn’t sign Chiasson, a 26-year-old who scored 12 goals for the Flames last season, to a PTO and Smith-Pelly, a well-traveled 25-year-old who’s been productive at times, to a two-way deal just to have some additional bodies in camp. The signing of those two tells me GM Brian MacLellan isn’t completely sold on the prospects being ready for full-time NHL roles. Not yet, at least.

4 and 5—A top-four and bottom pair defenseman.

Camp opens with five D-men on NHL deals—Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney. That, of course, means there are two spots open, if you include the spare.

In the running for an opening night roster spot I’ve got Djoos, Aaron Ness, Jyrki Jokipakka and Madison Bowey.

The Caps would love to see Djoos lock down a job after the year he had in Hershey, where he put up 58 points and ranked third among all AHL blueliners. But, at 6-0, 168-pounds (that’s what he told reporters earlier this month) there are concerns about him being able to effectively battle much bigger forwards and withstand the daily pounding an NHL defenseman takes.

In the end, I’m fairly sure Djoos makes it. The better question, to me, is where does the 23-year-old lefty fit? There would appear to be an opening on Carlson’s left side, though that would be a substantial jump for a rookie.

Ness, a 27-year-old with good wheels and 39 games of NHL experience, is going to get a shot, too. Can he stick? The next few two weeks figure to be the biggest opportunity he’s had since getting 20 games with the Islanders in 2013-14.

Jokipakka, 26, was signed to a PTO primarily as insurance. There’s a few things that make him an intriguing possibility, though. He’s listed at 6-3, 215-pounds. He’s played 150 games for the Stars, Flames and Senators. And he’s been good enough at times during his career to get 16-18 minutes a game. Something tells me he’s more of a curiosity than anything else. But he’ll get a look.   

As for Bowey, here’s what you need to know about him: 1) he’s going to play in the NHL this year 2) as a right shot he would fit very nicely alongside Orpik and 3) he doesn’t need to pass through waivers to be sent down. Whether he starts in D.C. or has to work his way back will be determined by what he does in camp.

Could a youngster like Lucas Johansen, a 2016 first rounder, or Connor Hobbs, who lit up the WHL last season, also join the fray? Perhaps. But they’ve got no pro experience. A little seasoning wouldn’t hurt.

So that’s how I see the battles as things begin. Could things change? They can and often do…and that’s why camp is going to be so darn fun to follow this year.

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No, the Capitals should not trade prospect Ilya Samsonov to fix the defense

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No, the Capitals should not trade prospect Ilya Samsonov to fix the defense

Let’s face it, the Caps need help on defense. Yes, they held the NHL’s best offense to only two goals on Tuesday and one of them was an empty-netter, but with two rookies in the lineup, a 37-year-old Brooks Orpik logging top-four minutes and Matt Niskanen on LTIR, chances are Tuesday’s game was more the exception and not the norm.

The Capitals roster certainly took a step back from last season, but the team is still very much in win-now mode. That means they need an upgrade to their defense and they need it fast.

RELATED: CAN MOVING BURAKOVSKY DOWN TO THE THIRD LINE GIVE HIM A SPARK?

Should they trade their top prospect in Ilya Samsonov to get it?

Matt Larkin of The Hockey News makes that argument in an article published Wednesday.

Larkin writes:

The Caps do also have an A-plus piece in Ilya Samsonov, the best goaltending prospect in hockey. He’s still playing in the KHL and has no chance to pass Braden Holtby on the depth chart once he does come to North America, so Samsonov is worth far more to MacLellan as a trading chip. Don’t get too spooked by the Filip Forsberg debacle, Caps fans. It was one of the worst trades in NHL history, but it was an anomaly. Samsonov would likely yield the Caps something that really helps them. It wouldn’t be Martin Erat 2.0.

My response? No, no, a thousand times, NO!

Yes, the Capitals would get a good return for trading away the best goalie prospect in the NHL, but Larkin is missing something important. Erat is only half of what makes the Forsberg trade sting. The other half is seeing Forsberg absolutely live up to his potential as a top-line player. It’s seeing him lead the Nashville Predators to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. That latter point is what should give the Caps pause when considering trading away Samsonov.

Imagine watching Samsonov become one of the top goalies in the NHL while playing with another team, leading them to the conference finals or even beyond. That will all be totally worth it considering the package the Caps got in exchange helped them make the playoffs once, right?

History will not be kind to a Samsonov trade.

Yes, if the Caps trade Samsonov and the return helps the team win a Stanley Cup, no one will care if he goes on to become the next Dominik Hasek and yes, history has shown that in the NHL all you have to do is make the playoffs and you have a shot. But allow me to ask one very tough question: Are the Capitals really one defenseman away from winning a Stanley Cup? If not, what else do they need and would a Samsonov trade really net them all of that?

The answer to both questions is no. Defense is certainly the team’s biggest weakness, but let’s not gloss over the fact that Washington has 22 goals in their first seven games and 17 of those goals have come from three players. That’s not sustainable. Let’s not gloss over the fact that Washington is third in the NHL with a shooting percentage of 12.03 when the highest shooting percentage in the entire NHL last season was 9.20. That’s not sustainable.

There’s another issue with trading Samsonov that Larkin does not address: Money. The Caps have none. Moving Samsonov would do nothing to help the team’s cap constraints and any trade the team could make would have to include moving a player off the active roster as well.

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Samsonov is under contract through the 2017-18 season. When he does eventually come to North America, no, he will not pass Holtby on the depth chart…initially. But how many people thought the same thing about Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ben Bishop in Tampa Bay? Vasilevskiy is now the starter and that happened a lot sooner than many expected. Plus, with all due respect to Holtby, isn’t that the ideal scenario to have a starting goalie play out his prime and have another goalie ready to take his place already on your bench?

Would a Samsonov trade be as bad as the Forsberg trade? No. The history of that trade continues to hang over the franchise and I cannot see general manager Brian MacLellan taking anything less than a king’s ransom before he parts with the young netminder. But the bar should not be set at “do better than the Forsberg trade.”

Granted, the Caps can’t do nothing. They need to fix the defense soon or they will have dug themselves a hole in the standings they can’t dig out of. Trading away your best asset and potential franchise goalie, however, seems shortsighted.

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Will Andre Burakovsky's demotion spark the Caps' third line?

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Will Andre Burakovsky's demotion spark the Caps' third line?

Andre Burakovksy was bumped down to the third line on Thursday as Caps Coach Barry Trotz attempts to jumpstart the scuffling winger and ignite his team’s inconsistent goal production.

The move, of course, reunites Burakovsky (0 goals, 2 assists) with Lars Eller (0 goals, 2 assists) and Brett Connolly (1 goal, 1 assist).

Among Trotz's reasons for making the switch:

  • The trio had a very productive stretch together midway through last season…and all three could use a spark right now.
  • A shakeup was probably in order, anyway. The Caps have scored two or fewer goals in three of the past four games. Now two lines have new pieces, with Burakovsky joining the third line and rugged winger Tom Wilson (0g, 0a) on the left side of Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. In fact, Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie have accounted for 77-percent of the team’s goals thus far.
  • The move puts Burakovsky, a left shot, on the right side. Trotz believes he’s more effective attacking from that position.   

Asked about Burakovsky’s struggles, Trotz acknowledged that he’s seeing what everyone is seeing: No. 65 is taking too long to pull the trigger on his shots.

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“He is taking a little bit too long and they’re getting blocked,” Trotz said. “The window is so small in this league because the defenders are good and there’s back pressure [from forwards]. And when the window gets extended from his standpoint offensively, those windows of opportunity get shut down real quick.”

Burakovsky has also missed the net—a lot. According to NHL.com, he’s put nine shots on net (four snap shots, four wrist shots and a redirection). He’s also misfired nine times, sending two over the net and seven wide of it.

“Right now, when I didn’t score yet, I’m trying to just snipe a little bit too much, just trying to pick that one corner instead of catching [the puck] and getting it off really quick and maybe surprise the goalie,” Burakovsky said. “I’m just trying to do a little bit too much right now. That’s what happens when you want something to really happen. I really want to get going, get my game going. And then you try to force stuff. …It’s just confidence. When I get the first one, they are going to start coming automatically.”

He added: “I’m not worried at all.”

More from Burakovsky on speeding up his shot.

As for moving Burakovsky to the right side, Trotz explained: “Playing on the [right] side it allows him to get a shot off a little quicker than playing on the left side. Because when you’re playing the left side you’re either shooting a little bit from the outside or you’re dragging it into the middle and then you’re trying to turn your body and get through.”

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Eller said it only took a few minutes for the trio to begin feeling comfortable again.

“There is chemistry there that we know is there,” he said. “We felt it in practice, created a couple of good looks. It feels really natural playing with Conno and Burky. When you have good chemistry you have anticipation for each other’s next move. You just know what the guy is going to do next and where the puck is going to go next. That’s chemistry and we have some of that.”

Obviously, it’s impossible to know if the move will have the desired effect. But we do know this much: the one thing that’s kept Burakovsky from reaching the 20-goal plateau in past seasons were extended droughts. And this—if he doesn’t get on the board soon—is threatening to become another one of those.

“I said [to him], ‘Don’t think too much,’” Trotz recalled of a recent conversation he had with the 22-year-old. “Just understand you’re going to be a real productive player in this league for a long time, and understand what’s giving you trouble finding the back of the net.’ I think he’ll be fine.”