Chandler Stephenson

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Message received: Boyd, Stephenson know they are in a fight to keep their jobs

Message received: Boyd, Stephenson know they are in a fight to keep their jobs

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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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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Projecting the Caps opening night roster after the first day of training camp

Projecting the Caps opening night roster after the first day of training camp

Training camp for the 2019-20 season has officially opened for the Capitals who first took to the ice on Friday.

There has been a lot of talk through the offseason and a lot of people working the “Armchair GM” tool on CapFriendly trying to figure out what the roster will look like. After hearing Todd Reirden and Brian MacLellan speak, plus seeing the team take the ice on Friday, we have at least a rough idea of what the team may be thinking in terms of lines. The news of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s suspension, plus the fact that his cap hit will not count during his suspension, also dramatically changes the roster plans for the start of the season.

There is still an entire preseason to play and a lot of questions that need to be answered, but here is an early projection for the opening night roster for the Caps based on the first few days of training camp.

Offense

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

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Kuznetsov’s suspension frees up a significant chunk of cap space for opening night. That creates a lot of possibilities for some players who otherwise would not have made the team to stick around through the first week of the season. If there is a prospect who impresses throughout the preseason, however, this can change. A solid performance for Connor McMichael, for example, and perhaps it is not farfetched to think he could play a few games before getting sent back to juniors. As a junior player, he could play up to nine NHL games in a season without burning a year of his entry-level contract.

For now, I am going pretty vanilla with my projection and including Boyd and Stephenson

Training camp lines should always be taken with a grain of salt, but this is how the top nine has looked on the wings. At center, Kuznetsov has been skating on the second line with Vrana and Oshie with Eller on the third with Hagelin and Panik. No doubt Eller will move up to the second line in Kuznetsov’s absence.

As for the fourth line, there were two different lines skating with the likely candidates. Leipsic and Boyd were with Brett Leason -- which I would not read into, I don’t think there is any chance Leason is a serious candidate to make the team this year -- while Dowd and Hathaway were with Stephenson.

Both Stephenson and Boyd enter camp with something to prove. Frankly, if the team had faith in them to play a fourth line and penalty kill role, they would not have gone out and signed Leipsic and Hathaway.

"It's a competition,” Reirden said Thursday of Stephenson and Boyd. “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.”

The Kuznetsov suspension puts Boyd on the third line for now and gives Stephenson a second chance to prove he belongs to stay. I see Boyd primarily being an extra this season and Stephenson most likely headed to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns.

Defense

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

It seems doubtful that Kempny will play in the preseason, but the goal is for him to be ready for the start of the season. He has yet to skate with the team in practice, but he seems far enough along that he looks to be on pace for Oct. 2.

The Caps will eventually need to make a tough decision somewhere to shed salary and I believe that will mean moving Christian Djoos. If a team suffers an injury in training camp and wants to make a deal, I could see that happening. For now, like with many of the forwards, Kuznetsov’s suspension means the Caps have an extra week to make that decision. For now, I will keep him in the lineup, but I would not be surprised if he is playing for a different team by the start of the season.

The team is excited about prospects Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary. Alexeyev, however, is dealing with an upper-body injury and there is no timetable for when he may return to the ice. Fehervary, meanwhile, has received nothing by rave reviews. Like with the forwards, the Kuznetsov suspension could open the door for a player like Fehervary to get a game or two.

Goalies

Braden Holtby Pheonix Copley

I’m not ready to predict this yet, but with Kuznetsov’s salary off the books for the first week of the season do the Caps consider keeping Samsonov and starting him against the New York Islanders in the second game of the season?

The Caps face a back-to-back with the Islanders and the Carolina Hurricanes. I assume Holtby gets Carolina since it is the home opener, but what about the Islanders? Washington has to get their young goalies starts this season and Kuznetsov’s suspension gives them the ability to do so without putting Copley on waivers.

But is it too early? It’s worth watching to see how Samsonov and Vanecek play in the preseason to see if either may be ready for a quick start at the start of the season.

“We’re not going to force it,” MacLellan said. “Based on performance, we’ll evaluate it. … I’ll go with Scott Murray and we’ll see how they do in camp. We like all four of our goalies. We have four good goalies, we feel. We have a lot of depth. Vanecek played well – he was an all-star at the AHL level last year, and I’d like to see him get games. I’d like to see Samsonov get games. Copley has continued to improve, so it’s going to be a competitive situation.”

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