HERSHEY, Pa. -- Sixteen games into the regular season and the Capitals find themselves exactly where they want to be atop the league standings. The same cannot be said for Pheonix Copley or Christian Djoos who, despite accomplished resumes, are playing in the AHL with the Hershey Bears.
Faced with a salary cap crunch heading into the season, general manager Brian MacLellan had some tough decisions to make as the team had more NHL players than it could afford. Thus, Copley and Djoos, two players who had significant roles for Washington last season, found themselves back down in the league they thought they had graduated past.
“Obviously it's a pretty big shock, but these things happen so you just kind of move on and keep getting better,” Copley told NBC Sports Washington.
Pheonix Copley stepped into the NHL for his first full season in 2018-19 as the backup to Braden Holtby. Though largely unproven at that level, Copley stepped in and won 16 games in 27 appearances with a 2.90 GAA and .905 save percentage. The most important requirement for a backup is to play well enough that the team can still earn wins without having to overwork its starter. Copley certainly accomplished that.
But Copley was replaced this season by the up-and-coming Ilya Samsonov who, in addition to costing $85,000 less against the salary cap than Copley, is also widely considered to be the future starter for the Caps. Getting him playing time was necessary this season. The fact that he was also cheaper is a bonus.
Djoos made his debut for the Caps in 2017. Despite being a rookie, he was thrust into a top-four role until the team acquired Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek at the trade deadline, thus pushing Djoos to No. 7. In the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Caps lost their first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Barry Trotz made two personnel moves to adjust. While everyone remembers the move to put Holtby back in as the starter over Philipp Grubauer, what you may not remember is that Djoos came into the lineup after being scratched those first two games as well. He played on the third pair for the next 22 games helping the Caps win its first Cup in franchise history.
The Swedish defenseman seemed to regress somewhat last season in part due to suffering compression syndrome, a very serious injury in his thigh which limited his season to just 45 games. When he came back, opponents seemed to dominate Djoos physically in a way they had not been able to do as frequently the year before.
Still, after two seasons in the NHL, the news that he was being placed on waivers was hard to take.
“We all knew the situation with the cap space,” Djoos said. “We knew something's going to happen, but we didn't know what. And then they brought me in for a meeting and told me. I think all the guys would react the same to that meeting.”
Getting placed on waivers did not automatically mean either player was going to the AHL as it provided each NHL team the chance to claim them. Djoos admitted to hoping another team would take that chance.
“I was hoping someone would take a chance and bring me in and see what I can do,” he said.
Copley felt similarly. Though he hopes to remain with the organization, his goal is to be in the NHL above all else.
“At that point, I wasn’t' really thinking about anything,” he said. “Wherever I ended up, I want to be in the NHL no matter where that's at, but hopefully it's D.C. in the future.”
Despite his desire to return to the NHL, Copley said he has not considered asking for a trade. Djoos was more cryptic.
“I don't know what's going on really,” he said. “I'm trying to get back to the NHL as fast as I can. I don't know what they're thinking and what they want to do, but hopefully something happens.”
The silver lining to being sent back to the AHL is that both players are playing bigger roles than they would have had in Washington. Djoos is in a top-four role playing with Martin Fehervary. He sits second on the team in points with one goal and eight assists.
Copley meanwhile is splitting starts with Vitek Vanecek and has played in seven games with a 2.99 GAA and .884 save percentage.
“They've been tremendous, all three. I put [Travis Boyd] into that category as well when he was here,” Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery said. “I'm not going to sugarcoat it and say it's an ideal situation or they're jumping for joy when they get sent down here and come down here, which I wouldn't expect. They're athletes and they want to be in the highest league and playing in Washington. But, having said that, once they wrapped their head around what's gone on, where they're at, what they need to do, they all including [Boyd] shifted their focus and now are doing everything they can to help this team win and help themselves get better so that when they get an opportunity with Washington, they're ready for it. And they've been phenomenal.”
While both players seem to be putting a good face on an unfortunate situation, neither has wavered from their goal of getting back to the NHL as quickly as possible.
“It's obviously not where I want to be, but these things happen and at the end of the day I'm still playing hockey at a very high level,” Copley said. “I'm happy to be here and happy to get better here and earn my way back up there.”
“I want to play as best I can and prove myself and get back to the NHL somehow as fast as I can,” Djoos said. “I'm just doing my best every day and trying to help the team to win and prove that I can play in the NHL again."
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