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Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

WASHINGTON -- Midway through the second period of the Capitals’ preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Ilya Samsonov looked like he could barely contain himself. Knowing he would soon be in the game, Samsonov put on his mask and leaned on the bench, just waiting for his opportunity. Finally, the puck was stopped, the whistle blew and on he skated. Samsonov and teammate Vitek Vanecek were splitting the game. Vanecek had gotten the start. Now, it was Samsonov’s turn.

Samsonov came in cold, but he needed to be ready to go. Soon after entering the game, the Caps were called for two minor penalties and Samsonov was tasked with protecting the net for 65 seconds of a two-man advantage. Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, who scored 10 goals last season and an additional two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, unloaded a one-timer at the young Samsonov, but the rookie goalie absorbed the shot with no trouble and no rebound.

The ovation was louder than you would expect for what amounts to a meaningless preseason game, but it reflects the excitement over Samsonov as a prospect and the fans’ interest in one of the biggest roster battles at Caps training camp.

There’s no question who will be the Caps’ top goalie heading into the season. Braden Holtby enters as the undisputed starter. The intrigue is over who the team will ultimately keep as the backup.

Three goalies are currently competing for the job as two young netminders are pushing to make the NHL roster and challenge last year’s incumbent, Pheonix Copley.

"We do have two up and coming guys,” Todd Reirden said. “You see Vanecek really continues to improve and get better, earned a nice contract this summer. Samsonov's our most highly touted prospect. No secrets there. We've got to continue to push him to be ready to play here and he's going to get the opportunity to do that.”

As Reirden noted, the most heralded of the three without question is Samsonov.

A first-round pick in 2015, Samsonov, 22, is considered the top prospect in the organization. He has spent the past four years since he was drafted dazzling with his play, particularly in the KHL and in junior tournaments.

Last season was Samsonov’s first in North America. He played 37 games in Hershey where, after a rocky start, he rebounded again with a spectacular second half to the season.

Samsonov’s teammate in Hershey, Vanecek, is also competing for an NHL spot.

Vanecek, 23, was a second-round draft pick by the Caps in 2014. Since 2015, however, he has been living in the shadow of Samsonov, but he held his own in Hershey last season even with all the excitement over Samsonov’s arrival. Vanecek had the better season and was named Hershey’s representative to the AHL All-Star Classic.

Vanecek entered camp as the more polished goalie between the two rookies. While many assume Samsonov is higher on the team’s depth chart, Vanecek is focused on showing he doesn’t need any more time to develop and is ready to graduate from the AHL to the NHL now.

“Yeah, I feel like I'm ready,” Vanecek said.

“This is my fifth year,” he added. “I think I've got some experience and now it's just the step to NHL. Get there and just start playing the NHL. But it's not easy. It's tough. There is two good goalies, Holtby and Pheonix, and then Samsonov and me. It's really hard, but I will try my best to get there this year.”

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. Samsonov and Vanecek’s ascendency gives the team four goalies it believes they can rely on.

That is a good problem to have.

“They're far enough into their development where they've got lots of pro experience,” Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray told NBC Sports Washington. “They've gone through the trials and the tribulations at a high level, and they've developed their game where they can make an impact at any level that they play at.”

Both players will be competing against Copley, 27, who took over as the backup in the 2018-19 season after the team traded Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche. With only two games of NHL experience to his name, plus with how much the Caps relied upon Grubauer the year before, the move was seen as a gamble, but a gamble that paid off.

Copley went 16-7-3 in his first full NHL season with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. His 16 wins were one more than Grubauer earned the season before when he supplanted Holtby as the starter.

“[Copley] embraces that opportunity to continue to earn every opportunity he gets,” Murray said. “That's just the way he's wired. For him, he just he goes about it day by day and focuses on the things that make him play well and that's why he's a pro and that's why he adjusted so quickly last year and did his job very well when he was called upon.”

Copley’s season was certainly good enough to earn him another year as the backup. Plus, as Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as much as possible, one must ask if it even makes sense to have a young goalie serve as the backup as opposed to playing in the AHL and getting regular playing time.

While Murray acknowledged the importance of continuing to get the two young goalies game experience, neither Samsonov nor Vanecek seem daunted by the challenge of less playing time.

“I'm a professional,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “I should be able to play in any situation. I'm just going to do what the coaches tell me so if I play in Hershey or play here, I'll adjust to any situation.”

“If I will be backup goalie, I don't get too many games,” Vanecek said, “But doesn't matter I think because the NHL is the top league in the world so I think that will be great for me.”

Still, the transition from playing frequently to becoming a backup can be difficult. The fact that Copley has shown he can handle that role helps make his case.

The problem for Copley, however, is that even though he earned the role last year, even though he showed he can handle that role, even though relying on one or two rookie goalies to win 16 games like Copley did last season is a huge risk, outside factors have forced the team to at least consider if Vanecek or Samsonov may be ready for a bigger role.

And so, after a season in which Copley silenced much of his doubters, he now finds himself back to square one having to prove himself all over again.

“[Copley] knows the situation,” Murray said. “He knows, he understands pro hockey. You can look at our organization and understand where it's at.”

“I think every year you've got to go in and earn your spot,” Copley said. “This year's no different. I'm prepared to come in and do my best and give myself the best chance to make this team.”

The main theme of Washington’s offseason has been trying to navigate the salary cap. The Capitals are right up against the ceiling and, when Evgeny Kuznetsov returns from suspension, tough decisions will have to be made to make the team cap compliant.

Of the three goalies competing for the backup role, Copley has the largest cap hit of $1.1 million as opposed to Samsonov’s $925,000 and Vanecek’s $716,667.

The uncertainty surrounding Holtby, who is in the final year of his contract, also would seem to necessitate getting playing time for the younger goalies. They are not just competing for a backup job this year, but Samsonov, in particular, is auditioning for a starting role next season. If he shows he can handle it or that he is on the right path in his development, it will make the team’s decision on what to do with Holtby when his contract expires that much easier.

The salary cap situation is tough and the team knows it. In addition, no one is blind to Holtby’s contract situation or to the fact that the team may have a new starter next season.

But when it comes to deciding who will play this year, none of that matters.

From the players to the coaches to the management, it is understood that whoever plays behind Holtby this season will be the one who earns it with his play.

“You have a grand plan in mind, but it just seems like more often than not the performance really helps dictate a lot of those decisions,” Reirden said.

“Pheonix's job is to push the envelope to make it hard for us to make a move on him,” Murray said. “Ilya's job is to push the envelope to make it hard to have him play a ton in the American League and Vitek's is the same job. Yeah, you're cognizant of the situation and you understand that there could be some movement, but we've got four good guys here that understand the situation.”

That attitude is one shared by the goalies themselves.

“It's not my job,” Samsonov said when asked if he paid attention to the salary cap. “My job's to go on the ice and everything else will work itself out.”

“That kind of stuff works itself out,” Copley said. “But for me, I just want to give myself the best chance and that is not paying attention to that stuff. Whatever happens there happens.”

Obviously for the organization to say none of those other factors matter would be disingenuous. They matter. It is MacLellan’s job to think and plan around those factors. But the team is not saying those factors don’t matter, just that those off-ice issues will not dictate the decisions that are made on the ice. Performance will. Everything else is secondary.

“To me, the play on the ice will make that decision,” Reirden said.

“We're really happy with where our guys are at and obviously it makes for competition and that's good,” Murray said. “That's what you want in any position is you want competition, you want guys pushing to become better and pushing the envelope to move to the next level.”

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Capitals await word on possible Garnet Hathaway suspension

Capitals await word on possible Garnet Hathaway suspension

ARLINGTON — Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway was still waiting to hear about a possible suspension following his spitting incident Monday in a 5-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks
 
Hathaway spit on defenseman Erik Gudbranson in the final minute of the second period against the Ducks at the tail end of a brawl seconds after Chandler Stephen’s goal made it 3-0. The NHL Department of Player Safety is not involved in any decision for supplemental discipline. Instead, the NHL’s Hockey Operations Department will make the determination. Washington coach Todd Reirden said he was disappointed in Hathaway's action, but defended the player's character, too, after the game Monday. 

"I definitely appreciated that and it went a long way," Hathaway said. "Just to echo what [Reirden] said, that is not how I see myself either. Not the kind of character I want to uphold either. So it is something I regret and it was nice Todd said that stuff."
 
The Capitals play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Tight against the salary cap and already playing with a short roster, coach Todd Reirden said there are moves coming to ease that crunch whether Hathaway is suspended or not. 
 
"I think you always have to prepare,” Reirden said. “We're going to be making a few transactions here later today and tomorrow morning, and it'll all kind of combine into the decisions that we make."
 
One move could be placing forward Carl Hagelin on long-term injured reserve. He sustained an upper-body injury in a Nov. 7 game against the Florida Panthers. Hagelin must miss 10 games and 24 calendar days, however, to make that move retroactive. He skated again in a light blue non-contact jersey at practice on Tuesday. 
 
That almost certainly rules Hagelin out for the Rangers game. That would be his seventh game in a row out of the lineup. Because of the 10/24 rule and a compressed schedule, Hagelin would actually have to miss through the Nov. 30 game against the Detroit Red Wings, which would be an 11th game missed.
 
The Detroit contest is the beginning of a four-game road trip that continues in California. Hagelin would be eligible to play again Dec. 3 at the San Jose Sharks.   
 
Another option is a player with a more concerning injury. Fourth-line center Nic Dowd had a serious cut on his left hand against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 13. He has missed three games in a row, but the injury is considered more serious. Dowd would not be able to return until a Dec. 9 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. 
 
“He's a little bit more serious than we anticipated, so he's still not on the ice,” Reirden said. “I'm going to wait to get final word from our trainer and I'll speak on that when I have that news.”
 
Dowd has a salary-cap hit of $750,000. Hagelin is at $2.75 million. The Capitals are down to $259,059 current daily cap space, according to the web site CapFriendly.com, and has been juggling players between the NHL and AHL roster (goalie Ilya Samsonov, defenseman Tyler Lewington, Travis Boyd, Vitek Vanacek, Liam O’Brien) thanks to the untimely injuries to Dowd and Hagelin. 
 
A possible Hathaway suspension complicates that further. The Capitals are headed to New York on Tuesday afternoon, but NHL executives are busy with the General Managers' meetings in Toronto so it is possible they don't find out for sure until Tuesday night or even Wednesday morning. 
 
“I haven't really thought about it, but you never want to sit and leave guys hanging and not be able to help out,” Hathaway said. “So this is a group that it would be unfortunate if I wasn't [playing], but they are a team that can handle themselves and not worried about them in the outcomes of games." 

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Travis Boyd has done enough to show the Caps they can't afford to send him back to Hershey

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Travis Boyd has done enough to show the Caps they can't afford to send him back to Hershey

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Travis Boyd knew the situation when he came into training camp. He knew the Capitals were tight against the salary cap even before the team signed several depth forwards who could potentially push him out of the lineup. He knew he would have to scratch and claw to keep his spot. Initially, however, he was not able to show the Caps why he deserved to remain on the NHL roster. When Evgeny Kuznetsov returned from suspension early in the season, Boyd was among the odd-men out and reassigned to Hershey in the AHL.

Fate, perhaps, is now intervening as Boyd has been called up twice due to injuries and he has certainly made the most of those opportunities. Now in his second call-up, Boyd is showing the coaches in real NHL games what he could not in the preseason, that he is an NHL player and that the Caps are better for having him on the roster.

“It's been a tough year so far definitely, but try not to think about it,” Boyd said. “That's the part of this that's out of your hands. My focus has been every game I've had a chance to play this year, just try to go out there and play well and make it a tough decision for them whether to send me back down or not. Just try and play well every game and get another chance and continue to show what I can do.”

In just eight games, Boyd has already contributed six points (1 goal, 5 assists). That’s more points than Carl Hagelin (5), Nic Dowd, (4), Chandler Stephenson (4) and Richard Panik (1), all of whom have played more games. Boyd is also contributing with limited ice time. Dowd and Brendan Leipsic are the only Caps currently averaging less than Boyd's 10:03 of ice time per game.

Promoted to the third line for Monday’s game, it took Boyd just 50 seconds to end Panik’s point drought, setting up his linemate with a pass from behind the net that Panik fired into the far corner.

The main issue for Boyd is that, apart from his offense, he does not provide much else. He is not good enough to play on the power play and not well suited for the penalty kill. He plays more of a finesse style than the heavy, physical style the Caps covet.

“It's more than just points,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “Obviously we want our lineup to have a certain identity to it and be able to play a particular way that we feel gives us a chance to have success and that's a heavier, more physical, aggressive forechecking style. So those are types of things that he can continue to add [to his game].”

But, even if Boyd does not contribute those big hits, he does provide something that right now may be even more valuable: a small cap hit.

With a total cap hit of only $800,000, Boyd has the third-lowest cap hit among the team's forwards and fifth-lowest among all players on the current roster.

Given how dire the Caps’ salary cap situation is, the fact that the team could potentially save money against the cap by replacing someone on the roster with Boyd cannot be ignored.

So tight against the salary cap was Washington that when Panik returned from LTIR, the team reassigned both Boyd and Tyler Lewington to Hershey leaving them with only six defensemen and 12 healthy forwards, the bare minimum. So tight against the cap was the team that when both Dowd and Hagelin were injured, the team recalled Lewington, a defenseman, because he has the lowest cap hit and was the only player the team could afford to call up. So tight against the cap was Washington that the next day the team sent down future starter Ilya Samsonov and replaced him with Vitek Vanecek just to get enough cap hit to recall Boyd in order to skate four full forward lines.

Clearly, the team’s cap situation is not sustainable.

Forget about when the team travels to California at the start of December and will need to bring extra players in case of injury, this already has proven to be a problem for the team. They need more cap room.

Even if the cap situation did not necessitate some sort of move to free up space, Boyd is showing through his play that he deserves to remain with the Caps. The impact he is having on the ice is undeniable.

When asked if Boyd was competing to potentially stay in Washington, Reirden did not hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he said. “He's known that. The message has been clear to him. Especially as we're getting closer here to 30 days with him and a decision having to be made again, he's doing everything he can with his game to be able to prove every night that he deserves an elevated role or to be here. Certainly with the low cap hit and the offense he's been able to generate make it an intriguing situation for sure.”

Once the team gets healthy again, the Caps will have no choice but to send someone back to Hershey, but both Boyd’s production and his cap hit dictate that it should not be him.

“I think I am an NHL player,” Boyd said, “But ultimately with the way that everything has worked out so far this year, every game I get is just another chance to show that.”

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