Pheonix Copley

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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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Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

WASHINGTON -- Midway through the second period of the Capitals’ preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Ilya Samsonov looked like he could barely contain himself. Knowing he would soon be in the game, Samsonov put on his mask and leaned on the bench, just waiting for his opportunity. Finally, the puck was stopped, the whistle blew and on he skated. Samsonov and teammate Vitek Vanecek were splitting the game. Vanecek had gotten the start. Now, it was Samsonov’s turn.

Samsonov came in cold, but he needed to be ready to go. Soon after entering the game, the Caps were called for two minor penalties and Samsonov was tasked with protecting the net for 65 seconds of a two-man advantage. Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, who scored 10 goals last season and an additional two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, unloaded a one-timer at the young Samsonov, but the rookie goalie absorbed the shot with no trouble and no rebound.

The ovation was louder than you would expect for what amounts to a meaningless preseason game, but it reflects the excitement over Samsonov as a prospect and the fans’ interest in one of the biggest roster battles at Caps training camp.

There’s no question who will be the Caps’ top goalie heading into the season. Braden Holtby enters as the undisputed starter. The intrigue is over who the team will ultimately keep as the backup.

Three goalies are currently competing for the job as two young netminders are pushing to make the NHL roster and challenge last year’s incumbent, Pheonix Copley.

"We do have two up and coming guys,” Todd Reirden said. “You see Vanecek really continues to improve and get better, earned a nice contract this summer. Samsonov's our most highly touted prospect. No secrets there. We've got to continue to push him to be ready to play here and he's going to get the opportunity to do that.”

As Reirden noted, the most heralded of the three without question is Samsonov.

A first-round pick in 2015, Samsonov, 22, is considered the top prospect in the organization. He has spent the past four years since he was drafted dazzling with his play, particularly in the KHL and in junior tournaments.

Last season was Samsonov’s first in North America. He played 37 games in Hershey where, after a rocky start, he rebounded again with a spectacular second half to the season.

Samsonov’s teammate in Hershey, Vanecek, is also competing for an NHL spot.

Vanecek, 23, was a second-round draft pick by the Caps in 2014. Since 2015, however, he has been living in the shadow of Samsonov, but he held his own in Hershey last season even with all the excitement over Samsonov’s arrival. Vanecek had the better season and was named Hershey’s representative to the AHL All-Star Classic.

Vanecek entered camp as the more polished goalie between the two rookies. While many assume Samsonov is higher on the team’s depth chart, Vanecek is focused on showing he doesn’t need any more time to develop and is ready to graduate from the AHL to the NHL now.

“Yeah, I feel like I'm ready,” Vanecek said.

“This is my fifth year,” he added. “I think I've got some experience and now it's just the step to NHL. Get there and just start playing the NHL. But it's not easy. It's tough. There is two good goalies, Holtby and Pheonix, and then Samsonov and me. It's really hard, but I will try my best to get there this year.”

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. Samsonov and Vanecek’s ascendency gives the team four goalies it believes they can rely on.

That is a good problem to have.

“They're far enough into their development where they've got lots of pro experience,” Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray told NBC Sports Washington. “They've gone through the trials and the tribulations at a high level, and they've developed their game where they can make an impact at any level that they play at.”

Both players will be competing against Copley, 27, who took over as the backup in the 2018-19 season after the team traded Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche. With only two games of NHL experience to his name, plus with how much the Caps relied upon Grubauer the year before, the move was seen as a gamble, but a gamble that paid off.

Copley went 16-7-3 in his first full NHL season with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. His 16 wins were one more than Grubauer earned the season before when he supplanted Holtby as the starter.

“[Copley] embraces that opportunity to continue to earn every opportunity he gets,” Murray said. “That's just the way he's wired. For him, he just he goes about it day by day and focuses on the things that make him play well and that's why he's a pro and that's why he adjusted so quickly last year and did his job very well when he was called upon.”

Copley’s season was certainly good enough to earn him another year as the backup. Plus, as Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as much as possible, one must ask if it even makes sense to have a young goalie serve as the backup as opposed to playing in the AHL and getting regular playing time.

While Murray acknowledged the importance of continuing to get the two young goalies game experience, neither Samsonov nor Vanecek seem daunted by the challenge of less playing time.

“I'm a professional,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “I should be able to play in any situation. I'm just going to do what the coaches tell me so if I play in Hershey or play here, I'll adjust to any situation.”

“If I will be backup goalie, I don't get too many games,” Vanecek said, “But doesn't matter I think because the NHL is the top league in the world so I think that will be great for me.”

Still, the transition from playing frequently to becoming a backup can be difficult. The fact that Copley has shown he can handle that role helps make his case.

The problem for Copley, however, is that even though he earned the role last year, even though he showed he can handle that role, even though relying on one or two rookie goalies to win 16 games like Copley did last season is a huge risk, outside factors have forced the team to at least consider if Vanecek or Samsonov may be ready for a bigger role.

And so, after a season in which Copley silenced much of his doubters, he now finds himself back to square one having to prove himself all over again.

“[Copley] knows the situation,” Murray said. “He knows, he understands pro hockey. You can look at our organization and understand where it's at.”

“I think every year you've got to go in and earn your spot,” Copley said. “This year's no different. I'm prepared to come in and do my best and give myself the best chance to make this team.”

The main theme of Washington’s offseason has been trying to navigate the salary cap. The Capitals are right up against the ceiling and, when Evgeny Kuznetsov returns from suspension, tough decisions will have to be made to make the team cap compliant.

Of the three goalies competing for the backup role, Copley has the largest cap hit of $1.1 million as opposed to Samsonov’s $925,000 and Vanecek’s $716,667.

The uncertainty surrounding Holtby, who is in the final year of his contract, also would seem to necessitate getting playing time for the younger goalies. They are not just competing for a backup job this year, but Samsonov, in particular, is auditioning for a starting role next season. If he shows he can handle it or that he is on the right path in his development, it will make the team’s decision on what to do with Holtby when his contract expires that much easier.

The salary cap situation is tough and the team knows it. In addition, no one is blind to Holtby’s contract situation or to the fact that the team may have a new starter next season.

But when it comes to deciding who will play this year, none of that matters.

From the players to the coaches to the management, it is understood that whoever plays behind Holtby this season will be the one who earns it with his play.

“You have a grand plan in mind, but it just seems like more often than not the performance really helps dictate a lot of those decisions,” Reirden said.

“Pheonix's job is to push the envelope to make it hard for us to make a move on him,” Murray said. “Ilya's job is to push the envelope to make it hard to have him play a ton in the American League and Vitek's is the same job. Yeah, you're cognizant of the situation and you understand that there could be some movement, but we've got four good guys here that understand the situation.”

That attitude is one shared by the goalies themselves.

“It's not my job,” Samsonov said when asked if he paid attention to the salary cap. “My job's to go on the ice and everything else will work itself out.”

“That kind of stuff works itself out,” Copley said. “But for me, I just want to give myself the best chance and that is not paying attention to that stuff. Whatever happens there happens.”

Obviously for the organization to say none of those other factors matter would be disingenuous. They matter. It is MacLellan’s job to think and plan around those factors. But the team is not saying those factors don’t matter, just that those off-ice issues will not dictate the decisions that are made on the ice. Performance will. Everything else is secondary.

“To me, the play on the ice will make that decision,” Reirden said.

“We're really happy with where our guys are at and obviously it makes for competition and that's good,” Murray said. “That's what you want in any position is you want competition, you want guys pushing to become better and pushing the envelope to move to the next level.”

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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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