ARLINGTON, Va. -- Capitals forwards Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson were given a very clear message in the offseason. It came in the form of the team signing free-agents Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic.
Both Boyd and Stephenson held depth roles last season, but the addition of two fourth-line players made it clear that the team was not satisfied with their play last season. Now in training camp, they find themselves in a position where they have to compete to earn the roles they played last year.
“It's a competition,” head coach Todd Reirden said at media day. “They know it's a competition. They're well-informed. It's a very clear message. No one in situations where there's competition are wondering what's going on.”
But even before camp started, both players understood what those signings meant for them and why they were necessary.
“I wouldn't sit here and say I wasn't disappointed or a little frustrated I guess watching the signings that we had here,” Boyd told NBC Sports Washington, “But at the same time I think all those signings help the team and I think definitely makes the team and this group of guys obviously a super dangerous group.”
Last season was Boyd’s first full year in the NHL. It got off to a rough start as an injury kept him out for several weeks. When he finally did get into the lineup, he struggled to stay in and found himself cycling in and out for the rest of the season. He finished the season with 53 games.
Boyd said that overall he felt he had a good season and showed he could contribute offensively with five goals and 15 assists in those 53 appearances. He did acknowledge though that the constant cycling in and out wore on him mentally which affected his play.
“There would be times where you would go a week, week and a half in between games,” Boyd said. “You don't really realize how tough that is until you're in that situation. Your ability to create offense in those situations is a lot harder because if it's your first game in a week and a half, for me personally, I probably wouldn't have came out (sic) there in the first period and been trying to make maybe some sort of a skill play at a blue line. You end up taking kind of the easy way out because it was your first game in a week and a half and you don't want to turn a puck over and then all of a sudden as soon as you turn that over a coach is like alright. It doesn't look good.”
That sentiment of the mental grind of trying to stay in the lineup was echoed by Stephenson who saw his production decline from 18 points in 2017-18 to 11 last season.
“I wasn't really just kind of going out and playing, playing freely,” he said. “Just felt like every game it was kind of a mind game for myself just with trying to stay in the lineup. Just wasn't playing and that's the biggest thing that you can't let yourself get to that point. Once you start thinking instead of just playing, it's usually not going to end well.”
If a guy like Alex Ovechkin or T.J. Oshie has a bad game, it does not come with that fear of wondering whether it means you will be out of the lineup. They can move on, but it is more difficult for Boyd and Stephenson who knew one bad game or even one bad play could be the difference between playing or getting scratched and not knowing when your next game will come.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that with so many depth players, that is not going to change this season. Even if they both do make the team, with so many depth players they are going to have to justify their spot in the lineup.
The experience of fighting for playing time last season should help both players with knowing how to deal with that mental grind, according to Boyd.
“Going in and out and playing on the fourth line was something I haven't done,” Boyd said. “I couldn't really tell you how long it's been for me there. Just being comfortable in that situation I think will help. For me, just put a little bit more effort and a little bit more focus on the practices, especially when you get into the grind of the season and once you actually get into the midpart of the season where a lot of days you can come here and really not be feeling that fresh. You might be able to sneak through a practice without really working hard or as hard as you could, but someone who's going in and out of the lineup trying to go 100-percent every day and trying to keep not only your body in that game shape, but also trying to get your mind into making quick decisions still and just trying to be ready for whenever you do get that chance again.”
First, however, both Boyd and Stephenson have to make the team which is not guaranteed.
Washington’s salary cap situation means general manager Brian MacLellan is going to have to find a way to shed salary. That means either Boyd or Stephenson, or perhaps even both players could find themselves on the move. Training camp and the preseason offer them the chance to show the team they still deserve to be in Washington.
The suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov could also provide Boyd specifically a chance to impress.
With Kuznetsov out, Lars Eller is expected to move to the second line to replace him. That leaves an opening at third-line center.
This training camp was already important with Boyd fighting for his job. Now here is a chance to earn a third-line role to start the season and perhaps exhibit himself for the first three games until Kuznetsov returns.
“I can't even tell you how big it is,” Boyd said. “A chance to be in a role other than the fourth line if I am in that spot for these first three games, I'd love that. I'd love the chance, I'd love the opportunity. It's just a great opportunity for myself to showcase that I'm back from last year. I put on 10, 11 pounds over the summer so I've got some more weight to me this year, I feel like I'm moving well, I'm skating well I just want to go out there and, if I do get the chance in the first three games, go out there and show what I can do and hopefully show the coaching staff that hopefully I can play.”
As for Stephenson, he is taking a more relaxed approach to camp. If the pressure of staying in the lineup affected his play last season, he is determined to make sure the pressure of a competitive training camp does not drag him down.
“That'll just handcuff yourself and put you in a bad spot because you might be expecting something when it's not happening,” he said, “But for the most part, it's just a competitive camp. Come in, have fun, do what I can do and just do everything I can to stay here. I want to be here.”
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