The Capitals trimmed their roster down to 27 players on Tuesday as the lineup to start the season is starting to take shape. The regular NHL players, of course, remain. Goalie Zach Fucale remains as the No. 3 goalie and will back up Vitek Vanecek in Wednesday's preseason game. Martin Fehervary, Michal Kempny and Matt Irwin all remain locked in a competition for a spot on the blue line. Up front, Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre could have a spot on the roster with Nicklas Backstrom's status up in the air. Garrett Pilon also remains, a player specifically named by general manager Brian MacLellan in the offseason as someone who could earn a call-up to the NHL at some point this season.
And then there is Beck Malenstyn.
Malenstyn missed the entire 2021 season with an Achilles injury. His skill set is that of a fourth-line player and it certainly doesn't look like there are any holes on Washington's fourth line.
And yet, with training camp now underway in Hershey, and the Caps cutting the roster down to NHL players, Malenstyn remains in Washington.
"He was strong with his physicality, good awareness in the offensive zone on what we're looking to try and do out there and he will continue to get games and see what he can show during those games," head coach Peter Laviolette said Friday.
Malenstyn played three NHL games for Washington in the 2019-20 season as the bottom-six experienced some shuffling. With the fourth line a question mark heading into 2021, Malenstyn looked like a potential candidate to make the NHL roster.
But the injury ended his season before he even got a chance to compete. He suffered the injury three weeks before training camp and was off the ice for several months following surgery.
"The timeline was kind of six months out of surgery I would be back to being able to skate so took that time with the training staff, a lot of hours in the pool and in the gym to get to that point," Malenstyn said. "From there, it felt comfortable getting back on the ice slowly and was able to skate with the midget team back home until the pro guys came back in the summertime."
Malenstyn worked on his recovery at home in Vancouver. Recovering from an injury is never fun, but missing a full season with the team plus the added isolation that came with the pandemic left Malenstyn in a fairly lonely situation.
"It was mentally challenging for me, absolutely," Malenstyn said. "I had a great support circle with my wife and my family back home. It really tested me, but I think allowed me to grow mentally a lot too and just showed me how much I love playing this game and how badly I missed it when I was away from the team for that long."
Now, however, the rehab is behind him and Malenstyn is getting back to the things that made the coaches take notice of him in the past.
When recovering from major injuries, even when players are cleared to play, it can take a while before they begin to look and feel like themselves again on the ice. While at training camp and in the preseason, however, Malenstyn has not looked limited at all.
He credits his good start to having a full offseason to prepare.
"I was cleared early enough, kind of in that offseason summertime where I felt like I was able to get right back into training and have a good, full offseason," Malenstyn said. "I've felt like I've been able to kind of hit the ground running here physically."
Malenstyn made an impact right away in Washington's preseason opener against the Boston Bruins, his first taste of game action in over a year.
"I thought he was really notable with his physicality," Laviolette said. "He got in and he popped some bodies on the forecheck. Got it behind them, was able to get in, cycle the puck, turnover pucks, create havoc in the offensive zone."
For players like McMichael and Lapierre, making the jump from juniors or the AHL to the NHL can be difficult because their game is suited for a top-six role, but coaches are cautious about giving inexperienced prospects large roles.
For a player like Malenstyn, however, what he does best translates to a fourth-line role. It's often an easier transition for players like Malenstyn to step from the AHL onto an NHL fourth line than it is for skilled players to step directly into the top six.
"I want to be that guy that's first on the forecheck turning pucks over, reliable on the penalty kill," Malenstyn said. "I think the biggest thing for me that I learned is just continuing to create offense within my game. I don't need to be a guy who's beating three guys over the corner coming in and making a great play. It's using my size, using my speed, getting to the net, getting pucks to the net and then finishing those opportunities when I'm around there and creating space for the players around me and then having those skills and that confidence to execute those higher-skilled plays when they're available."
Realistically, it is still a long shot for Malenstyn to make the Caps roster. Washington's current fourth line of Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway stuck together for the entire 2021 season and there's no reason to think that won't continue into this season. In addition, the Caps have almost zero cap room to work with. If Backstrom is placed on long-term injured reserve to start the season, that may solve the cap issue temporarily, but then the Caps will have to consider holding onto both McMichael and Lapierre and also Fehervary, Kempny and Irwin on defense which may still leave no room for Malenstyn.
At least for now.
But with the NHL roster trimmed down to 27 players a week out from the start of the regular season, it's clear the team has taken notice of Malenstyn. His road to recovery may ultimately take him to the NHL sooner rather than later.
Said Malenstyn, "Everything feels great and it's just great to be back around the guys playing some hockey again."