HERSHEY, Pa. -- As the injury to Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny lingered through training camp, it soon became clear a roster that had looked airtight in the offseason would suddenly have a hole to fill on the blue line. Lucas Johansen wanted to win that job.
He didn’t, and though he still has a positive attitude playing in the AHL with the Hershey Bears, the reality of his situation is beginning to set in.
“I put myself in a really good position to get that opportunity and they decided otherwise,” Johansen told NBC Sports Washington. “I controlled everything I could control. I knew that it was going to be my biggest camp and I thought I did well. Most importantly, above all, I proved to myself that I could play at that level. You can't control their decisions. You've just got to go out every day and do your best.”
Johansen, 21, is now in his third season in Hershey and is still waiting for a chance to prove himself at the NHL level. As a first-round draft pick of the Caps in 2016, there is no question that both he and the team had hoped he would have reached the NHL by this point. An injury last season, however, limited him to just 45 games and essentially ended any chance for a call-up.
With Kempny’s injury, Johansen knew there was a chance for him to earn a spot, at least initially, on a reshuffled blue line. Perhaps more significant than the fact that he did not earn that job is who ultimately did. Jonas Siegenthaler, a 2015 second-round draft pick, has become an everyday player. Martin Fehervary, a second-round draft pick from the 2018 draft, played in three games to start the season before the salary cap forced him to Hershey. Tyler Lewington also was kept as a No. 7 due to his low cap hit.
“There's just so many guys and they're so tight to the cap that it's tough to get an opportunity for that reason,” Johansen said.
In addition to those prospects, the team is also excited for 2018 first-round draft pick Alex Alexeyev, who was also expected to compete for a spot in the lineup before a concussion forced him to miss all of training camp.
With Alexeyev and Fehervary, that’s two players drafted after Johansen who already seem to have surpassed him on the organization’s depth chart.
To make matters worse for Johansen, the competition for playing time in Hershey is almost as fierce as it was in Washington. The top four for the Bears is essentially locked in, with Alex Alexeyev and veteran Erik Burgdoerfer on the top pair and Christian Djoos and Martin Fehervary playing on the second. That leaves room just on the third pair and, as Hershey currently has nine defensemen on its roster, that means five players are competing for two spots in the lineup every night.
“That's probably been our biggest challenge this year,” Bears head coach Spencer Carbery said. “Nine defensemen that are all prospects or big parts of our team all have lofty goals of playing in the National Hockey League for the Caps, and so that's tricky because they all want to play, they all want to showcase what they're capable of doing, but there's only six that can dress a night. So we've had to manage that a little bit and some guys have had to wait their turn a little bit longer than maybe the organization would like or obviously they would like.”
As a result, Johansen has played in just six of Hershey’s first nine games thus far.
“You could look at every situation as frustrating or every situation as a positive,” he said. “I try to stay on the positive side as best I can. We got six left D and three right D so it makes for a great competition. Every day, the positive side of this is we're pushing each other and we're trying to get better and we're trying to get that opportunity up top.”
“I couldn't be happier with his approach and how he's come in this year so determined,” Carbery said. “He's working and competing. I didn't see him in his first year, coached against him, but comparative to last year he's on a mission and it's noticeable in practice, it's noticeable in games. He's really trying to prove something here in his last year of his entry-level deal.”
Johansen has remained positive throughout, but with younger players starting to creep ahead of him on the depth chart and ice time suddenly becoming more limited, he knows his NHL opportunity may ultimately come with another team.
For now, Johansen just wants to make sure that when that opportunity does come, he’s ready.
“Obviously I want to be in Washington,” he said. “I want to play for the Capitals. But at the end of the day, I just want an opportunity to play in the NHL. That's my childhood dream and I've been working my whole life for that. But I'm going to keep focusing on every day and try not to get too far ahead into that stuff.”
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