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.
So what are those jobs and who do I have in contention for them? Let’s take a look:
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.
MORE CAPITALS: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW FOR CAPS TRAINING CAMP