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This was likely Devante Smith-Pelly’s last season with the Caps

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This was likely Devante Smith-Pelly’s last season with the Caps

Devante Smith-Pelly kept a hopeful tone on breakdown day regarding his future with the Capitals.

“I love it here,” he said. “I love all the guys. I love everyone in the organization and city as well. If they want me back I want to come back.”

Smith-Pelly, 26, will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and will need a new contract in order to remain in Washington.

General manager Brian MacLellan’s comments, however, reflected that there were other factors than Smith-Pelly’s play that contributed to his tumultuous season.

“Internally we had a couple of issues we had to work through,” MacLellan said of Smith-Pelly.

Those “issues” may end up being the reason Smith-Pelly is not with the Caps again next season.

After a brilliant 2018 postseason in which he scored seven goals in 24 games, expectations were high that Smith-Pelly could pick up where he left off to start the season. It became apparent in the preseason that would not be the case.

No player plays in every game of the preseason, but when the first five games had passed without Smith-Pelly getting into the lineup, it became apparent there was an issue. Eventually it was reported by Isabelle Khurshudyan that the issue was conditioning related.

Smith-Pelly denied that report, but as he reflected on his season during his final media availability, he did admit the short summer affected his preparation for the season.

“The summer was different for a lot of guys,” he said. “I mean, very short. Guys are hurt going into the summer so obviously you don’t have the same routine as you’ve had in years past to get ready. I guess that just affected me more than some other guys. You try to get your footing and stuff happens.”

Smith-Pelly struggled to find much production throughout the season with only four goals and four assists in 54 games. That lack of production shockingly landed him on waivers prior to the trade deadline as the Caps needed to clear cap room for the acquisition of defenseman Nick Jensen.

Smith-Pelly was placed on waivers, exposed to all 30 NHL teams, and all 30 passed. He had gone full circle from playoff hero down to the AHL and he was assigned to the Hershey Bears.

MacLellan said after the trade deadline that waiving Smith-Pelly purely for cap reasons, but it is not a move you make with a player who was exceeding his expectations on the NHL roster. Smith-Pelly even admitted that the move was a necessary one for his play.

“It was a necessary step to try and get my game back,” Smith-Pelly said. “I know this is the level I should be playing at and that was just something I had to do to get back to this level. I enjoyed my time down there. It was fun to play in different situations and I think it worked out in a positive way.”

With increased minutes and an increased role, Smith-Pelly scored six goals and eight assists in 20 games while with the Bears. He was even recalled by the Caps for the final three games of the playoffs after T.J. Oshie suffered an injury.

For those three games at least, the tough season was forgotten. Smith-Pelly was warmly received by both the team and the fans. On his first shift in Game 5, he delivered a hit which brought the red-clad fans to their feet and drew chants of “DSP! DSP! DSP!” throughout the arena.

There were no playoff heroics this time, however. Though he played well in a fourth-line role, Smith-Pelly was held off the score sheet in all three games and now is left with an uncertain future hoping to re-sign with the team that sent him to the minors just a few weeks earlier.

At 26, Smith-Pelly is not over the hill by any stretch. He has shown both in Washington and Anaheim that he is a playoff producer. His last contract was for a modest cap hit of $1 million and, given how things played out, it is conceivable that the Caps could potentially sign him for even less. That would be a major plus for a team that will be dealing with major salary constraints this offseason and will need cheap players to bolster the bottom six.

But after a season of “issues,” would the Caps want to commit another year?

MacLellan did not rule out a possible return for Smith-Pelly but did make it clear he had concerns and would not simply hand out a contract to him until those are addressed.

“I think we’ll talk to [Smith-Pelly] going forward,” MacLellan said. “I had an exit interview meeting with him and out-laid our expectations and we need to be assured that requirements would be met before we brought him back.”

As much as Smith-Pelly may be hoping to return, he also acknowledged the very real possibility that this may have been his final season in Washington.

“I would love to come back but at the same time if I’m not in their plans then that’s how it is,” he said. “I enjoyed my time here and we had a great two-year run here.”

 

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Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

The Capitals are a week into training camp and the opening roster is starting to come into focus. The first round of cuts was made on Thursday and while none of the names were all that shocking, it does tell us that the team does not intend to get cute with its roster makeup with Evgeny Kuznetsov out.

Here’s a projection of the Caps’ opening night roster through the first cuts and first week of camp.

Offense

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Travis Boyd - Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnett Hathaway
Chandler Stephenson

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The top two lines are all but set. They have been practicing this way for much of camp and it seems unlikely that Todd Reirden will start that way and then randomly shuffle his top six.

Stephenson did little to help his stock on Monday with an underwhelming performance in the preseason opener against a pretty bad Chicago lineup. I see him in Washington the first week but sent down to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns. He is someone who could probably clear waivers even if it not done on the traditional waiver dump right before the league season officially starts. Boyd did a little better than Stephenson on Monday and I think he will ultimately get to stick around this season in case the team wants to boost the offense of the fourth line. For now, he can be inserted in on the third line at center.

Defense

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas
Christian Djoos

The conversation around Kempny shifted a bit on Wednesday. The sense I was getting prior to that was that the team was all-in on Kempny being ready for the first game of the regular season. Reirden reiterated that on Wednesday, but also said he would like to get him into a preseason game if possible. To me, that may be a sign that Kempny is progressing. Even if he is not ready for the preseason, I do believe he is on pace for the start of the regular season at this point.

I felt Jensen looked pretty comfortable in the preseason opener on Monday. Granted that was against a bad roster, but he red plays well, jumped up into the offense and, critically, he was able to hold his own on the left side which is something he was really dreadful at last season.

Gudas scored a goal on Wednesday, but I thought he looked a bit slow in his own end. As of now, I still give Jensen the edge in that race and I think Gudas will be better off on the third pair anyway.

Djoos was better than Siegenthaler on Monday, but I feel Siegenthaler bought himself some time with his performance in the playoffs last year. It is going to be really hard for the Caps to justify Djoos’ salary as $1.25 million is too much for a No. 6-7 defenseman. Ultimately, the onus is on him to show the team he is someone they simply cannot afford to lose.

There is a way for the team to keep Djoos, but it depends on who backs up Braden Holtby.

Goalie

Braden Holtby
Vitek Vanecek

Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov played well enough on Wednesday that replacing Pheonix Copley seems like a real possibility. You need to see more from them than simply half a preseason game, but we will get that chance as the preseason rolls along. The problem here is Copley’s $1.1 million cap hit. If Vanecek and Samsonov can get the job done for less money -- and it looked like they could against St. Louis -- then Copley is likely headed to waivers.

Why Vanecek over Samsonov? First off, with this roster projection, the team could afford to keep Djoos with Vanecek as a backup with his $716,667 cap hit, but not with Samsonov's $925,000 cap hit. The cap is that tight. Getting Samsonov consistent playing time is also important for his development. He will get that in Hershey, but not in Washington. Vanecek is waiver exempt so the team will still be able to shuffle Samsonov and Vanecek to make sure they both get NHL playing time. That added flexibility is a plus as well. Otherwise, it would mean putting Copley on waivers in the middle of the season when he is probably more likely to get claimed.

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Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

The Capitals made their first round of training camp cuts on Thursday, trimming 18 players from the team’s roster including preseason standouts Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas.

McMichael was Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2019. He tallied an incredible assist in Monday’s preseason opener, backhanding a no-look pass to a wide-open Damien Riat. His solid performance earned him another game on Wednesday where he moved up to the third line. The highlight of the night was McMichael attempting a between-the-legs shot on Stanley Cup champion goalie Jordan Binnington.

“It’s a pretty good goalie he was trying that move on,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “He has some swagger to him, he has some confidence. He’s not afraid to try plays. That’s some of the stuff that pushes guys into the first round.”

McMichael’s strong play in camp and in the preseason opened the door perhaps for him to compete to stay in Washington for the start of the season.

With the suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington finds itself down a center for the first three games. With Lars Eller moving up to the second line, that leaves an opening on the third between Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, where McMichael played on Wednesday.

That, however, does not appear to be in the cards as McMichael is headed back to his junior team, the London Knights.

Protas, who scored a goal and two assists on Monday, was also among the players cut. A third-round draft pick in 2019, Protas was extremely impressive in the preseason for his all-around game. He showed good awareness, vision and speed. His skating form needs work, but this is a player who looks like he has an NHL future ahead of him which is not always the case for mid-round draft picks.

The fact that McMichael and Protas were among the first cuts should not be seen as an indictment of their play by the team. Junior players are usually among the first cuts so they can return to their teams during training camp. The only reason this was a question was because of Kuznetsov’s suspension, but ultimately the team has other candidates to turn to at third-line center. With a brutal October schedule, the first week of the season may not be the best time to get cute or creative with roster choices.

Here are all of the cuts the Caps made on Thursday:

Loaned to their junior teams:

Eric Flrochuk (Saskatoon, WHL)
Alex Kannok-Leipert (Vancouver, WHL)
Connor McMichael (London, OHL)
Aliaksei Protas (Prince Albert, WHL)

Released from their ATOs:

Hayden Hawkey
Beck Warm

Assigned to Hershey:

Casey Bailey
Erik Burgdoerfer
Tommy Hughes
Kale Kessy
Chris McCarthy
Matt Moulson
Logan Thompson
Matthew Weis
Steven Whitney

Kody Clark and Riley Sutter, who are both dealing with upper-body injuries, were reassigned to Hershey as well to continue rehab.

In addition, Damie Riat has been returned to his European team EHC Biel-Bienne of the NLA in Switzerland.

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