Christian Djoos

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The Caps’ lineup for Tuesday’s game is full of question marks

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The Caps’ lineup for Tuesday’s game is full of question marks

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Capitals have one last game in 2019 against the New York Islanders. Just who will be playing in that game, however, remains a question.

Tom Wilson and Michal Kempny both missed Saturday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players were on the ice Monday for practice but two others, T.J. Oshie and Christian Djoos, were absent.

A flu bug has hit the team hard that has kept Kempny out of the lineup for two games, made Radko Gudas a game-time decision on Friday and has now struck Oshie who was out Monday with an illness.

“Just seems like every day is something new,” head coach Todd Reirden said.

Wilson is dealing with a lower-body injury. He was among the first players on the ice for practice on Monday and was a full participant, practicing in his normal spot on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Kempny was also out early. After skating a few laps gingerly and a quick conversation with head athletic trainer Jason Serbus, Kempny was able to tough it out and play through practice. He skated on the third pairing with Gudas.

The fact that both Wilson and Kempny were able to skate the full practice on Monday is an encouraging sign, but Reirden made it clear that is no guarantee they will be ready to play.

“It's good that they both were out there through the whole practice,” he said. “It'd be premature for me to talk about how they're going to do with the rehab the rest of today and how they're going to feel tomorrow when they wake up.”

Oshie’s status for the game also remains unknown. Reirden said only that he was “hoping” Oshie could play.

Goalie is a question mark as well as Reirden said he has not yet decided between Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov on who will start in net.

The one thing that is certain? Djoos is out.

Djoos left Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury. His status was about the only thing Reirden spoke definitively on.

“He's day-to-day,” Reirden said. “I would say that he is definitely is going to be out tomorrow just because he didn't skate today. Obviously T.J. didn't either, but it's a different situation for him. He's upper body, Djoos is, and T.J. is a sickness.”

So to recap, a team with only one extra forward and one extra defenseman currently on its roster knows one defenseman for sure is out (Djoos) and does not yet know the status for two forwards (Wilson and Oshie) or one other defenseman (Kempny).

This would be the time when most teams would make some recalls from the AHL, but that situation is also complicated because of the salary cap. The Caps have very little cap space. The only reason why they currently have seven defensemen is because Djoos was called up late in the week due to Kempny and Gudas being sick.

“There's a lot of moving parts right now,” Reirden said. “That is without question. Have more than one contingency plan at this point just in terms of what we can do with cap space and how that would work makes it ever more complicated.”

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Copley, Djoos remain focused on getting back to the NHL as quickly as possible

Copley, Djoos remain focused on getting back to the NHL as quickly as possible

HERSHEY, Pa. -- Sixteen games into the regular season and the Capitals find themselves exactly where they want to be atop the league standings. The same cannot be said for Pheonix Copley or Christian Djoos who, despite accomplished resumes, are playing in the AHL with the Hershey Bears.

Faced with a salary cap crunch heading into the season, general manager Brian MacLellan had some tough decisions to make as the team had more NHL players than it could afford. Thus, Copley and Djoos, two players who had significant roles for Washington last season, found themselves back down in the league they thought they had graduated past.

“Obviously it's a pretty big shock, but these things happen so you just kind of move on and keep getting better,” Copley told NBC Sports Washington.

Pheonix Copley stepped into the NHL for his first full season in 2018-19 as the backup to Braden Holtby. Though largely unproven at that level, Copley stepped in and won 16 games in 27 appearances with a 2.90 GAA and .905 save percentage. The most important requirement for a backup is to play well enough that the team can still earn wins without having to overwork its starter. Copley certainly accomplished that.

But Copley was replaced this season by the up-and-coming Ilya Samsonov who, in addition to costing $85,000 less against the salary cap than Copley, is also widely considered to be the future starter for the Caps. Getting him playing time was necessary this season. The fact that he was also cheaper is a bonus.

Djoos made his debut for the Caps in 2017. Despite being a rookie, he was thrust into a top-four role until the team acquired Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek at the trade deadline, thus pushing Djoos to No. 7. In the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Caps lost their first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Barry Trotz made two personnel moves to adjust. While everyone remembers the move to put Holtby back in as the starter over Philipp Grubauer, what you may not remember is that Djoos came into the lineup after being scratched those first two games as well. He played on the third pair for the next 22 games helping the Caps win its first Cup in franchise history.

The Swedish defenseman seemed to regress somewhat last season in part due to suffering compression syndrome, a very serious injury in his thigh which limited his season to just 45 games. When he came back, opponents seemed to dominate Djoos physically in a way they had not been able to do as frequently the year before.

Still, after two seasons in the NHL, the news that he was being placed on waivers was hard to take.

“We all knew the situation with the cap space,” Djoos said. “We knew something's going to happen, but we didn't know what. And then they brought me in for a meeting and told me. I think all the guys would react the same to that meeting.”

Getting placed on waivers did not automatically mean either player was going to the AHL as it provided each NHL team the chance to claim them. Djoos admitted to hoping another team would take that chance.

“I was hoping someone would take a chance and bring me in and see what I can do,” he said.

Copley felt similarly. Though he hopes to remain with the organization, his goal is to be in the NHL above all else.

“At that point, I wasn’t' really thinking about anything,” he said. “Wherever I ended up, I want to be in the NHL no matter where that's at, but hopefully it's D.C. in the future.”

Despite his desire to return to the NHL, Copley said he has not considered asking for a trade. Djoos was more cryptic.

“I don't know what's going on really,” he said. “I'm trying to get back to the NHL as fast as I can. I don't know what they're thinking and what they want to do, but hopefully something happens.”

The silver lining to being sent back to the AHL is that both players are playing bigger roles than they would have had in Washington. Djoos is in a top-four role playing with Martin Fehervary. He sits second on the team in points with one goal and eight assists.

Copley meanwhile is splitting starts with Vitek Vanecek and has played in seven games with a 2.99 GAA and .884 save percentage.

“They've been tremendous, all three. I put [Travis Boyd] into that category as well when he was here,” Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery said. “I'm not going to sugarcoat it and say it's an ideal situation or they're jumping for joy when they get sent down here and come down here, which I wouldn't expect. They're athletes and they want to be in the highest league and playing in Washington. But, having said that, once they wrapped their head around what's gone on, where they're at, what they need to do, they all including [Boyd] shifted their focus and now are doing everything they can to help this team win and help themselves get better so that when they get an opportunity with Washington, they're ready for it. And they've been phenomenal.”

While both players seem to be putting a good face on an unfortunate situation, neither has wavered from their goal of getting back to the NHL as quickly as possible.

“It's obviously not where I want to be, but these things happen and at the end of the day I'm still playing hockey at a very high level,” Copley said. “I'm happy to be here and happy to get better here and earn my way back up there.”

“I want to play as best I can and prove myself and get back to the NHL somehow as fast as I can,” Djoos said. “I'm just doing my best every day and trying to help the team to win and prove that I can play in the NHL again."

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How will the goalie competition play out?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How will the goalie competition play out?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

James O. writes: Can you compare the play of Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek, and Ilya Samsonov? If you had to pick a backup goalie for this year, who would it be? Also, if you had to pick a goalie to replace Braden Holtby next year, who would it be (within the current caps organization or via free agency).

In three preseason games, none of the Caps’ goalies have been tested all that much. Copley was fine in his start. He did not allow any particularly soft goals and he didn’t make any particularly spectacular saves. The improvement of Vanecek from year to year is evident. He looks very calm and controlled. Sasmsonov made the best overall saves, but he also looked the rawest of the three, meaning there are aspects of his game that still need some fine-tuning.

I do not pretend to be a coach or a scout, but here are some things I noticed about Samsonov. First, he has trouble catching shots with his glove. There were multiple instances against Carolina where he got a glove on the puck but it bounced out and back into play. He also has a tendency to overcommit on saves. I don’t know how much scouting teams do in the preseason, if any, but Julien Gauthier trying the Peter Forsberg move on his breakaway was smart. Samsonov managed to get his stick on the puck and make the save, but that is a good example of what I’m talking about as he was basically sliding out of the net. He just needs to control his movement a little better. I have seen instances in the past where Samsonov abandons his form altogether in a scramble in front and relies on his athleticism to bail him out. That’s just a matter of coaching him to instinctively keep his form so that he can better stop the puck rather than abandon it in a way that teams can exploit.

When it comes to the backup job, considering the context of the team’s salary cap issues and the uncertainty of Holtby’s future, I would start with Vanecek as the backup with the intention of having Samsonov take over later in the season. I do not believe the dropoff between Vanecek and Copley is enough to warrant committing the extra cap space to Copley right given their situation. The Caps need that space.

I should stress that this is only an option if Washington has faith in Vanecek. If, for instance, Washington loses the opener against St. Louis, I don’t want to see Holtby play both games of the back-to-back that weekend because Reirden feels the team needs the points. This cannot be a cap move only. If they don’t trust Vanecek to be the backup, this is a moot discussion and the team has to get either Samsonov of Copley onto the roster and figure out how to make the cap work.

I would send Samsonov back to Hershey to get more coaching, with an occasional NHL call-up, maybe once or twice a month until about February or March when I switch the two and keep Samsonov up in the NHL full-time.

As for next year, if Holtby leaves in free agency which at this point I believe he will, Samsonov is the only one of the three I see with NHL starting potential. His ceiling is much higher than Copley or Vanecek's who I see as NHL backups.

Christopher S. writes: This preseason I’ve been very impressed with Nick Jensen, Christian Djoos, and Jonas Siegenthaler so now I'm hoping all three will remain on the roster. What’s the inside scoop on these three?

Of those three, the only one whose future is uncertain is Djoos because of his $1.25 million cap hit which is a bit steep for a player who is likely going to cycle in and out of the lineup as a No. 6, 7 defenseman. He has looked comfortable in the preseason, but I still think there are concerns over his size as forwards exploited him more last season than the year before. Siegenthaler is waiver exempt, but his cap hit is low enough that sending him to Hershey makes no sense considering you would have to bring someone else up to replace him.

The Caps can afford to keep all three players if Vanecek is Holtby’s backup. If the team elects to go with either Samsonov or Copley, however, then someone, most likely Djoos, is coming off the roster.

The one thing I will say about Jensen is I do not think the team shares your opinion of his preseason. It was assumed he would step into a top-four role this year with Matt Niskanen gone, but thus far, I cannot recall a single practice in which Jensen and Dmitry Orlov have been paired together. Orlov and Radko Gudas, however, have been frequent partners.

You have to take practice pairing with a grain of salt, but at some point you would think the coaches would want to put Orlov and jensen together if they intended on using that pair this season, right?

Gudas has looked good in the preseason, but I think it would say more about Jensen than Gudas if Gudas starts on the second pair and Jensen on the third.

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: Who makes the Caps if you had to guess of the remaining Shane Gersich, Brian Pinho and the defensive prospects Lucas Johansen, Martin Fehervary? Also, who gets backup to Braden Holtby?

If I had to guess, right now I believe Beck Malenstyn and Michael Sgarbossa probably have a leg up on any of the other forward prospects though I don’t think any of them last beyond Evgeny Kuznetsov’s three-game suspension.

I asked Reirden about Malenstyn after the first preseason game and he raved about him. Even if Malenstyn does not make it out of camp, he is someone to watch as a possible call-up at some point this season. Reirden has also been highly complimentary of Sgarbossa in camp. Considering Kuznetsov’s suspension leaves a hole at center that the team needs to be filled, I wonder if Sgarbossa is in the running for that job to start the season before being sent back to Hershey.

Lucas Johansen isn’t close and he struggled a lot in the Carolina game. They love Fehervary’s game, but I haven’t seen anything from him out of camp or in the preseason to make me think he could supplant any of the seven guys penciled in for the Caps’ roster this season. Maybe he could stick around if Michal Kempny is not ready for the start of the season, but I think it is more likely Tyler Lewington is kept as the No. 7 in that case.

@jmfrie3 on Twitter writes: Going into the new season, how do you feel about the defensive side of the game for the Caps?

I feel the team is going to be much better in its own end of the ice. You can put Richard Panik among the players who have impressed me the most this camp and preseason. He looks like a perfect fit on the third line and especially on the penalty kill. With him and a full season of Carl Hagelin manning the PK, I expect this unit to be much improved.

The bottom-six feels like it has more of a defensively responsible identity with its new makeup and I would expect more forward help in the defensive zone this season. The forwards have to take a larger role in this given that allowing high-danger chances was a major problem last season and the team’s defense is built around puck-movers and is going away from the physical players. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but I just think a defense with players like Jensen and Djoos is going to have a harder time boxing out opponents away from the crease than a defense with Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.

The one issue that concerns me is the second defensive pairing. Someone has to fill Niskanen’s spot and as I mentioned above, I believe that person is going to be Gudas. Gudas looks like a high-end third-pairing player, but I am not sure if I see him as a top-four. The defense is not going to improve if the second pair remains a weakness all season. Gudas has played well this preseason so hopefully he can develop chemistry with Orlov and the two will work well together, but if he indeed starts on the second pairing Gudas is going to be one of the big storylines of the early season.

Micah R. writes: How worried is the coaching staff about being scouted during the preseason? Do they play a more vanilla style like in the NFL? Or are we pretty much seeing what the offense and Power Play will look like to start the season?

We see very basic looks of everything in the preseason, though this is not entirely due to fears over scouting. Training camp rosters are full of junior players, prospects and AHLers, dozens of players who do not play for the Caps and who will not this season. The Caps’ first day of training camp was a Friday and the first preseason game was on Monday. The roster for that game included five players who aren’t on the roster anymore. Obviously that squad did not have a full working knowledge of the Caps’ system and they shouldn’t. Guys like Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas and Damien Riat don’t need to know everything right away as they were not going to be in camp that long. Just don’t watch those first three preseason games and think you are seeing exactly what the Caps are going to look like in the regular season.

Is there some thought to not wanting to give the other team an advantage? Of course. This is pro sports and paranoia just comes with the territory. But NHL training camp is more about learning the system and getting used to it by the start of the season. In football, the players have already been studying the playbook and are expected to be familiar and comfortable with it right away.

Christopher S. writes: What exactly did the brain trust see in Lucas Johansen in his draft year? I don’t see anything that would remotely make him a first-round pick much less a seventh-rounder.

This is not really fair to the Caps or to Johansen. Obviously he has not developed as much as the team would have hoped, but it is really easy to judge a pick after the fact. It is much harder to scout and project what a player could be. The fact is Johansen was a very highly regarded prospect and has been for several years.

NHL.com ranked Johansen 9th among its top 10 defensemen eligible for the 2016 draft saying that he “offers a complete game and is smooth in transition. He doesn’t do anything great but does a lot of things well and is considered as steady as they come.”

USA Today said of the pick that “you can see the growth in his game and development curve is heading straight up.”

Bleacher Report labeled Johansen as the team’s best pick that year saying he “has the complete range of skills and was an astute choice.” (By the way, Beck Malenstyn was rated as the team’s worst pick in 2016)

Draft expert Corey Pronman ranked Johansen 72nd in his top 100 prospects for the year. Yes, that means he did not see him as a first-round talent, but that is also a far cry from not even being worth a seventh-round pick as you implied.

And it is not as if the Johansen pick was met with immediate buyer’s remorse either. The Hockey News does a "Future Wach" edition of its magazine every year in which a panel of scouts and NHL executives evaluate prospects and names the top 10 prospects for each team. In 2017, Johansen ranked 5th among Caps’ prospects. In 2018 he was third and in 2019 he was fourth.

It should also be noted that Johansen suffered a significant upper-body injury last season that limited him to just 45 games.

If the Caps could do it over again, would Johanson be their pick? Maybe not, but hindsight is 20/20. That doesn’t mean there was nothing to like about his game and that everyone saw his struggles coming. If the Caps hadn’t taken him high, someone else would have.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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