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Among the very few holes on Washington’s roster, Nic Dowd saw opportunity

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Among the very few holes on Washington’s roster, Nic Dowd saw opportunity

When training camp begins on Friday, the Washington Capitals will return almost their entire roster from last season’s Stanley Cup run. That does not leave many openings in the lineup for new players, but there is at least one glaring need that Nic Dowd hopes to fill.

One of the few players the team lost in the offseason was fourth-line center Jay Beagle. With his absence, Dowd saw a clear opportunity.

“I think obviously with Beagle leaving, right-handed shot, penalty killer, I've done a lot of that in my career,” Dowd told reporters after an informal skate Tuesday.

“I think it's pretty obvious the role that I'm expected to step into and I think there's a good opportunity there. I think that last year with certain players that can fit that mold, they put a lot of emphasis on those guys and I think that allows for a lot of opportunity for players to continue to play well and move up throughout the year.”

Dowd was signed as a free agent in the offseason, one of the few additions the team made. By signing him to a one-way contract, the message was clear. This is someone general manager Brian MacLellan saw contributing at the NHL level this season.

If there is one team that appreciates the role depth players can have, it’s the Capitals. After years of losing in the playoffs with a top-heavy offensive lineup, Washington finally got the formula right last season with a deep lineup and key contributions from all four lines.

Finding a key contributor on the fourth line requires more than just a “next man up” mentality. A player’s skillset really has to match that role, someone who can play tough, limited minutes but still produce on the offensive end and play responsibly on the defensive side.

With his skillset, Dowd saw an opportunity to thrive in Washington by filling an obvious need.

“Any team you pick, you want to pick something where not only is it going to be a good organization, but where you see yourself as a player,” Dowd said. “Obviously everyone wants to play first, second line. That's power play. Everyone grew up doing that, but you have to set expectations and I think you've got to find teams that rely on players that can do things that are in my skillset and stuff that I can do. I think Washington was one of those teams.”

In addition to his skills on the ice, Dowd can also provide bit of new blood to the locker room.

The danger of returning so many new players is a sense of complacency within the team, something that is especially dangerous considering the Caps are coming off a Cup win and are hoping to avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover.

Sometimes a team needs that new blood to spark them. That may be putting a lot on a fourth line player to energize the team, but Beagle was a player that certainly provided energy to the locker room.

Fourth line center is one of the few holes the Caps have on their roster heading into camp. Dowd believes he can fill that hole both on and off the ice.

“I think with any team when new guys come to an organization, people are kind of are excited to see what they can bring and what they're capable of,” Dowd said. “I think that leaves room for opportunity to play well and kind of show the organization and fit into a nice spot.”

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Did Sunday's practice lineup show who the Caps' fourth line center will be?

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Did Sunday's practice lineup show who the Caps' fourth line center will be?

The Capitals had a very familiar look to them when their first group took to the ice for Sunday’s practice. With 41 players on the roster, the team is still split into two groups with each practicing at different times. The first group on the ice Sunday, however, looked an awful lot like what the Caps’ lineup could look like on opening night:

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky – Lars Eller – Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson – Nic Dowd – Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos

Braden Holtby
Pheonix Copley

With Dowd playing on the fourth line with the rest of the NHL roster, did head coach Todd Reirden tell us Dowd is the front-runner to win the center job?

Jay Beagle’s departure in the offseason left the team in need of a fourth line center and it has been an open competition all throughout camp. Sunday’s lineup seemed to be the best indication yet which way the coaches may be leaning.

But don’t read too much into that, Reirden said. That job is still very much up for grabs.

“I still think it's a competition,” Reirden said after practice. “The lines will be different tomorrow. We just wanted to do a particular practice that involved that group of more veteran roster guys, it's still definitely a full-on competition. You'll see different players in that game on Tuesday and you'll see different lines tomorrow. That was just by design to get some familiarity with some players that have played in the past together and see how that looked at this stage of camp.”

Dowd also said after practice that he certainly did not take Sunday’s lineup to be any indication of where he may stand with the coaches.

“I spent so much time my first couple years of pro just trying read in to where you are, what's the lineup and it just causes a lot of worry,” he said after practice. “You ask a lot of players, it's just a waste of time. I just find my name and move on and that's the case every day.”

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Sergei Shumakov remains a work in progress but that’s to be expected

Sergei Shumakov remains a work in progress but that’s to be expected

There is a lot of excitement over Capitals’ new winger Sergei Shumakov.

The transition from the KHL to the NHL, however, may take longer than the preseason will allow.

When Evgeny Kuznetsov heard the rumors about Shumakov possibly moving to the NHL, he was quick to reach out.

“I call his agent and call him and they said, ‘Yeah, we have a couple teams,’” Kuznetsov said. “And, then, ‘What do you mean a couple teams? It’s only one team.’ Then, after that, they signed after a couple of days.”

Thus the transition from the KHL to the NHL began.

General manager Brian MacLellan worked to keep the Capitals’ championship roster largely intact and made very few additions to the team.

Nic Dowd was signed on July 1 to compete for the fourth line center role left open by Jay Beagle’s departure. The second addition was Shumakov, a Russian player about to turn 26 with no North American experience.

Shumakov appears to be the latest of the low-risk, high-reward moves MacLellan has routinely made since taking over as general manager. The team took similar chances on Brett Connolly who has become a staple on the Caps’ bottom six and Devante Smith-Pelly who signed in 2017 after the New Jersey Devils bought him out of his contract.

“We see a player that has the ability to score and high-level skill,” MacLellan said of Shumakov. “We're not sure how it translates over here yet. We're just going to let him come in and find his way and put him in some spots and see what he can do."

Shumakov hails from the same town as Kuznetsov, Chelyabinsk, which is why Kuznetsov first reached out to Shumakov to recruit him.

“We’ve been together from 5 to 17 years old and play on the same line, so it’s always nice to have your friend,” Kuznetsov said.

But as excited as he is, Kuznetsov is also not naïve to the challenge that now faces Shumakov.

Fans are understandably excited about what Shumakov can add to the team as a tremendously skilled winger who scored 17 goals and 40 points in 47 games in the KHL last season. But the transition from the KHL to the NHL can be a challenging one.

What makes it so difficult?

“Everything,” Kuznetsov said. “The language, the game, the lifestyle, the mentality. It’s not easy when you’re 26 and you have to change everything in your life.”

The ice is smaller in North America meaning players have less room to maneuver. That makes the game faster paced and a lot more physical.

It is a transition that not everybody is able to make. For every Kuznetsov, there is a Vadim Shipachyov who lasted only three games in Vegas last season before he went back to the KHL.

That makes the preseason critical not just for the team to evaluate Shumakov, but also for him to adjust to the game.

Camp got off to an inauspicious start as visa issues delayed his arrival. Shumakov missed the first two days of camp and did not hit the ice until the fourth day. There is also a language barrier to work through as he does not speak English. When he finally did get on the ice, Reirden grouped him with the team’s other Russian players who could quickly get him up to speed on everything the coaches were saying.

Shumakov made his preseason debut on Friday and showed he is very much still a work in progress. He took a high-sticking penalty on his very first shift and ultimately finished the game with one shot on goal and no points.

With the regular season looming, Shumakov will likely need more time to adjust than the preseason will allow. One option that the team has, however, is to send Shumakov to the AHL. Not only is Shumakov on a two-way contract, but he is also waiver exempt meaning there is no risk in re-assigning him to Hershey.

The best thing to help Shumakov transition will be to play as much as possible. With the regular season only two weeks away, he may need a trip to Hershey before he is ready.

“He’s a skilled player and he can bring a lot of offensive chances to our game,” Kuznetsov said. 

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