Training camp has officially begun in Washington which means the regular season is not that far behind. As the players take to the ice on Friday, here are the six biggest stories to watch surrounding the Capitals' training camp.
Kuznetsov has met with Gary Bettman and the team is now awaiting word on if there will be any supplementary discipline. As the league recognizes cocaine as a drug of abuse rather than a performance-enhancing drug, there is no automatic suspension. Having said that, the fact that Kuznetsov appeared to mislead the league initially could come into play.
When the video of Kuznetsov in a hotel room next to lines of white powder came out earlier in the summer, Kuznetsov released a statement denying having ever taken drugs. The Capitals and the NHL investigated and were satisfied by Kuznetsov’s explanation. News of the failed drug test obviously refuted Kuznetsov’s previous statement.
General manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday that the team was dealing with “the uncertainty of a suspension.”
A suspension for Kuznetsov would obviously leave a huge hole on the roster with one of the team’s top two centers out of the lineup. How the Caps would replace him considering the salary cap situation is a major question.
Whether or not Kuznetsov is suspended, there is also the question of just what kind of player he will be when he returns? Will he be the 2018-19 Kuznetsov who is inconsistent and did not perform when it mattered most or the 2018 playoffs Kuznetsov who looked like one of the best players in the world? The answer to that question could dictate whether the Caps can compete for the Cup or if they are headed for another early exit.
The Backstrom and Holtby contracts
Both Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are on the final year of their contracts. In terms of personality, both players seem well suited to handle the pressure that comes with playing in a contract year. It is important to remember, however, that they are both human. Are we taking for granted that both players will simply perform or will they struggle more than anyone anticipates?
It will be particularly fascinating to see just how the team handles Holtby and the goalies with Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov competing for NHL playing time. Does the team need to see Vanecek and Samsonov in the NHL this year? Will the status quo prevail after a strong season from Copley last year or could Copley end up on waivers?
Though Kempny does not have as much fanfare around him as John Carlson, he does still play on the team’s top defensive pairing which makes his absence a significant one.
Kempny said Thursday that he was hopeful he could be ready for the start of the season. It certainly does not sound like we will see him at all in the preseason, however.
“I can play game when I'm not 100-percent so when I feel that I'm ready to go, I'm going to play,” Kempny said. “But if it's going to be like during the training camp, I don't know yet.”
Also worth watching is the health of prospect defenseman Alex Alexeyev.
Though he seemed like a longshot to make the NHL roster, Alexeyev was certainly going to be given every opportunity to compete for the No. 6/7 role on the team’s defense. An upper-body injury suffered during the Prospects Showcase, however, means Alexeyev will likely miss the start of training camp.
Alexeyev did not play a full season in any of his three years with Red Deer in the WHL. It will be worth monitoring him to see just how long he is held out.
The new guys
There will be several new faces in this year’s training camp as the roster experienced a bit more turnover this offseason than last.
On defense, Radko Gudas was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Matt Niskanen. He is expected to play on the right side of the third pairing. While most people know him for his reputation and checkered past with the Department of Player Safety, he actually proved himself to be an effective defenseman last season. That is the player MacLellan hopes he is getting, anyway.
On offense, Richard Panik is expected to slot into the third-line role left open by Brett Connolly while Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic will compete for fourth-line minutes. Bringing in so many forwards makes one wonder what the future of Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson in Washington may be. The offseason moves should have been a message to both players that the team will need more from them than what they showed last year if they hope to stay in D.C.
When you acquire players like Gudas, Panik, Hathaway and Leipsic in a single offseason, it is clearly with an eye on improving the team defensively and physically.
The Caps lost some regulars from the lineup, added several new players and the team is over the salary cap. The result is that there are a lot of positions up for grabs at camp, more so than we have seen in recent years.
On offense, the real competition is for who will play on the fourth line. Connolly’s departure leaves a hole on the third, but that job will almost certainly go to Panik. That leaves players like Hathaway, Leipsic, Stephenson, Boyd and Nic Dowd all competing for the fourth line.
On defense, the Caps need a player to fill in on the right side of the second pair to replace Niskanen. Nick Jensen appears the most likely candidate, but MacLellan would not rule out Gudas.
“[Jensen is] going to have a shot at it,” MacLellan said. “I think performance will dictate that. That job is wide open in my mind. Jensen could play it, Gudas could play it, or we could find something other than that, but those will be the two likely candidates to play in it.”
Whoever loses that competition will slide down to the third pair, but who will play with them on the left side?
“[Jonas Siegenthaler] has progressed well,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s going to be a good player in this league and he should come in at a higher level this year than he has last year. I thought he finished up well. [Christian Djoos], we’re looking for a rebound season. I think the injury set him back, so it’s important for him to have a good camp and a good start to the year.”
There also could be a battle brewing between the pipes.
Obviously Holtby will enter the year as the No. 1 and there is no reason to think he will relinquish that tile. Behind him, however, are Copley, Samsonov and Vanecek. Copley is the only one of the three with any NHL experience, but he is also the most expensive with a $1.1 million cap hit. Samsonov has the highest ceiling and is considered to be Holtby’s successor, but he has only one season of North American experience. Vanecek, meanwhile, has more experience in the AHL and played well enough last year to get at least a look from Washington as a possible backup in the future.
Further complicating the matter is that while Samsonov and Vanecek are both waiver exempt, Copley is not.
Getting under the salary cap
The Caps are still over the salary cap and the clock is ticking for the team to get under the ceiling. MacLellan is very cognizant of that, but there is a lot of uncertainty heading into training camp that is handcuffing his ability to address the issue.
“We have the uncertainty of a suspension,” MacLellan said. “We have an injury to Kempny and whatever else happens in training camp, so there’s a lot of things that can possibly happen. We’re going to try to play it out until the end. If something makes sense in the meantime, I think we’d pursue it.”
This begs a lot of fascinating questions. What will the team do if Kuznetsov is suspended as his salary would continue to count against the cap? Are there any prospects who can take advantage of the cap situation and earn a spot with their play and cheap contracts? Are Boyd and Stephenson expendable? Will the Caps look to save money by naming one of its younger netminders as the backup over Copley?
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: