The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.
But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.
With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.
The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at the upcoming training camp fight for playing time on the third pair alongside veteran Radko Gudas.
The Capitals made some changes on their blueline this summer with Matt Niskanen dealt to Philadelphia for Radko Gudas. With John Carlson and Nick Jensen, that gives three veteran options on the right side. With the hopeful return of Michal Kempny (torn hamstring) and also Dmitry Orlov both on the left side, that leaves one spot for two obvious candidates: Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler.
That becomes maybe the most interesting battle of camp next month. The top nine is basically settled. There could be a good push on the fourth line. But Siegenthaler and Djoos are two young defensemen in an organization that has invested heavily at that spot in recent years.
The Capitals will have 2018 first-round pick Alex Alexeyev, 2018 second-round pick Martin Fehervary – both 19 - and 2016 first-round pick Lucas Johansen all at AHL Hershey this year, among others.
That means this season is critical for Siegenthaler and Djoos to establish themselves lest a younger prospect swipe that spot sometime over the next year. You don’t take players that high in the draft and not give them a shot in the NHL at some point. All three aren’t going to be total busts – although Johansen, 21, has some work to do this season as the oldest prospect of the three.
Djoos, 25, looked like a mainstay after playing in 22 of 24 Stanley Cup playoff games in 2018. At 6-foot, 170 pounds, he’s never going to be much of a physical presence. But he’s a fine skater and has provided good value already as a seventh-round draft pick in 2012.
But after playing in 63 games in 2017-18, including most of that Stanley Cup run, Djoos appeared in just 45 last season. A Dec. 11 thigh injury turned into compartment syndrome, a scary issue where blood becomes trapped in the muscle and immediate surgery is needed. He eventually returned to the lineup after missing 24 games but wasn’t totally right in his first eight games back. Djoos then sat for 11 of the next 12 before jumping back into the lineup for eight of the final nine games and the first three of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The problem: He was eventually benched for Siegenthaler after Game 3 of the first-round series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes and didn’t play again. Maybe an offseason healing will get Djoos back on track.
But Siegenthaler, 22, will have his chance, too. He held his own in rough circumstances in the Hurricanes series. Kempny had been lost for the season on March 20 and the Capitals were scrambling to keep their blueline together. Siegenthaler played on the top pair with Carlson.
That experience left a better taste after an up-and-down rookie season where he made his NHL debut on Nov. 9 before being sent back to Hershey. He played 26 games, a pretty small sample size. Djoos got in 63 as a rookie even before the Stanley Cup playoffs that spring.
So who will actually win this battle? If both are on the roster, you could easily see a scenario where both players get into 50-plus games, especially as they fill in for any of the five veterans if/when they get hurt, suspended, etc. What’s harder to tell is which one will take advantage. They’re two different players. Djoos could be a better matchup against certain teams while Siegenthaler at 6-3, 206 could be better against others.
One caveat: Djoos was awarded a one-year, $1.25 million contract in arbitration in July. That means he and the Capitals couldn’t come to an agreement on his worth and he is probably being paid more than the team is comfortable with.
Needing to shed more than $1.37 million in salary-cap space before the final roster is set at the end of the preseason, Washington could deem Djoos expendable in a trade. A defenseman like Tyler Lewington, 25, could take that No. 7 spot and would cost only $675,000. That’s big savings for a team where every penny will count to get some breathing room. But before that happens, Djoos should at least get to prove his worth in training camp. His salary isn’t the only way for the Capitals to get out of cap jail.
But whether it’s just during camp or throughout most of the season, Djoos and Siegenthaler will both have their chance. With prospects lining up behind them, it’s time to take advantage of the opportunity.
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