A 135-day offseason officially came to an end Thursday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where Capitals veterans and prospects reported for physicals and off-ice testing. The first day will conclude with a player and staff meeting led by associate coach Todd Reirden, who’ll address a team that’s missing its head coach, captain, Vezina Trophy winning goalie and six other players who are competing in the World Cup of Hockey.
So, yeah, the first few days of camp figure to look and feel a bit different due those high profile absences. A sense of normalcy, though, won’t be far off; players on eliminated teams could begin trickling back into town as soon as Friday, though they may not join the on-ice sessions immediately.
Although there will be some initial weirdness, it’s still a critical three week stretch and there are still plenty of storylines to follow. Here are five that our team at CSN will be monitoring:
1-No vacancy. A quick glance at www.generalfanager.com underscores the fact that there’s not much wiggle room, if any at all, with 21 players signed to one-way deals. And when you throw in Andre Burakovsky, there are 22 players who are virtual locks to make the roster. Which means the challenge for coaching staff will primarily be integrating newcomers Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, while simultaneously seeking to establish chemistry and balance. The only question, it seems, is which youngster grabs the 14th forward spot. I’d expect Zach Sanford, Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker to be in that mix.
2-Rare opportunity. Although full-time jobs may not be available, it’s always important for young players show GM Brian MacLellan and Co. how much progress they’ve made. And with a handful of veterans at the World Cup, prospects are going to get more reps alongside NHL regulars—in practice and in preseason games—than they would in a normal camp. How they perform could go a long way toward helping MacLellan establish an early pecking order for the call-up list.
3- Tough enough? When I spoke to Justin Williams a few weeks ago, he said his primary focus in camp will be practicing with a high level of intensity so that when the World Cup players return there’s no “playing catch-up.” After all, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Matt Niskanen, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson have been practicing with, and competing against, the best of the best for more than two weeks. The others have not.
4-Infirmary report. It appears that the players who headed into the offseason nursing injuries have healed up over the summer. Marcus Johansson told reporters a few weeks ago that he’s 100-percent after being dogged by an undisclosed injury late last season. Similarly, Holtby said he’s completely recovered from the knee injury that he was coping with in the playoffs. The one player I’m curious about is defenseman Karl Alzner, who is returning from sports hernia and groin muscle injuries. He told me last month that he was around 85-percent and he expected to be 100-percent by opening night. I suspect we’ll get an update on Friday.
5-Mixing and matching. The real work of getting this team ready to face the Penguins on Oct. 13 can't begin in earnest until everyone has returned from the World Cup. So we probably won’t get a clear picture of Barry Trotz’s forward combinations and Reirden’s defensive pairings until the final few preseason games. When the whole group is finally back together, here are some of the questions we’ll be asking: Who does newly re-signing defenseman Orlov play with? Trotz has said he wants him to take on a top-4 role this season, perhaps alongside Carlson or Niskanen. If that’s the case, what does that mean for Brooks Orpik? Where does Tom Wilson fit in? Management has said it wants to see more from him, too. How about Connolly? He’s a 24-year-old former No. 6 overall pick who hasn’t lived up to his draft status. At 6-2, 193-pounds, though, he certainly possesses intriguing potential. Who skates on the third line with Eller? Will Trotz stack his top two lines or spread out the talent a little more evenly? By the preseason finale against the Islanders on Oct. 9, there will be much more clarity.
The Capitals’ mantra for 2016-17 will be ‘Will Over Skill’, the slogan that’s emblazoned on their training camp t-shirts. Indeed, the Caps, once again, have skill to spare. The question has always been whether they possess enough will power to persevere through a grueling 82-game regular season and then push their game to the next level when the games really matter.
The answer to that question, obviously, won't be known for quite a while. But we know this much now: laying the foundation for success begins Friday, when the first of three groups hits the ice at 9:30 a.m.
MORE CAPITALS: Caps officially re-sign Orlov