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Breaking down the Caps' new fourth line roster battle

Breaking down the Caps' new fourth line roster battle

When Capitals training camp opens in September, there will not be much intrigue when it comes to the top-nine on offense. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik, and Jakub Vrana—assuming he is re-signed—will make up the team’s top three lines.

But with two new additions to the roster through free agency, it appears Todd Reirden is going to have to make a decision as to who plays on the fourth line.

The fourth line was an area in which the team needed to improve and general manager Brian MacLellan was aggressive in addressing that need giving the team at least five players battling for three spots in the lineup. Here’s a breakdown of the only real roster battle offensively for the Caps heading into next season.

Locked in

Nic Dowd

Last year the departure of Jay Beagle made fourth-line center one of the few spots up for grabs in training camp. That is not the case this year. Dowd won the job and seems pretty entrenched in this role moving forward as he was given a three-year extension. The offensive upside is limited as his eight goals last season were a career-high, but his 22 points matched Beagle’s production from the year prior so it is not as if the offensive output of the fourth line has taken a step back with Dowd.

Dowd was also a regular on the penalty kill and he was the only center on the team to have a faceoff win percentage of over 50 at 51.9-percent.

Pencil him in

Garnet Hathaway

When you break down the Caps’ moves this offseason, it is pretty clear the goal for MacLellan was to improve the team defensively. Hathaway’s career-high in goals is 11, which isn’t bad for a fourth-liner, but the real asset he brings is his defensive acumen. He averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice time per game last season with the Calgary Flames.

But the real reason Hathaway appears to essentially be a lock to play a significant role on the fourth line next season is his contract. You do not sign a fourth-line player for four years at $1.5 million per year if you think he is going to spend most of the season as a healthy scratch. That’s a significant contract for a player with his role so it is clear the team envisions him being a regular in the lineup.

The guys who need to impress in training camp

Brendan Leipsic

Hathaway’s contract is a dead giveaway as to what the team envisions his role is going forward. Leipsic was also a free agent signing, but his deal is only for one year and $700,000. MacLellan seems to love going for those low-risk contracts and this is the latest example.

Washington will be Leipsic’s fifth NHL team in his three-year NHL career. In 126 career games, he has 13 goals and 48 total points. His best season offensively came last year as he set career-highs in goals (seven) and points (23) with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.

The thing about Leipsic to keep in mind is that this was a move MacLellan did not have to make. After the team signed Panik and Hathaway, many assumed the team was done. At that point, the team appeared to have a full offensive roster with 12 forwards under contract plus Chandler Stephenson qualified as a restricted free agent. Yet, MacLellan decided to sign Leipsic anyway which all but ensures that someone is going to be moved before the start of the season. The team is just too close against the cap to carry two extra forwards and someone will have to be sent to Hershey or traded.

This is not a move you make unless you are not satisfied with what your fourth line options are. Leipsic will have to earn his spot in training camp, but I would give him the inside track over Stephenson and Travis Boyd at this point.

Travis Boyd

Boyd’s 2018-19 season had its ups and downs. His first full season in the NHL got off to a rocky start as an injury kept him out of the lineup for all of October, thus ending any chance he had of beating out Dowd at fourth-line center. It may have been moot anyway as Boyd appears to be more of an NHL wing than a center, but that versatility can be an asset.

Boyd’s offensive numbers were reasonably good with five goals and 15 assists in 53 games. MacLellan’s moves this offseason, however, show that he wants the fourth line to improve defensively and that was a real struggle for Boyd. His 5-on-5 high-danger chances for percentage in 2018-19 was the lowest on the team at 39.52-percent and was among the worst in the NHL. When you watch him play, it does not appear that he has adjusted to a bottom-six role very well as he continues to use ineffective offensive moves that, while they may have been successful in college and the AHL, he just does not have the skill to pull them off at the NHL level. It is frustrating for a team when the fourth line turns the puck over because Boyd tries a spin move in front of the net that is easily stopped by the defense and pushed up and out of the zone.

Boyd needs to stop playing like a top-six AHL forward and start playing like a bottom-six NHL forward because that is what his skill dictates his NHL future will be.

On the outside looking in

Chandler Stephenson

Stephenson has great speed and can be an effective penalty killer, but it is hard not to see the additions of Hathaway and Leipsic as an indictment of his play. In 2017-18, he scored six goals and 12 assists with a plus-13. In 2018-19, he managed just five goals and six assists and was a minus-13 despite getting comparable ice time from the season before. His stats were not the result of a reduced role, just reduced effectiveness.

It is not just the free agent moves that show you he may be in trouble. Look back to last season when the team acquired Hagelin. One of Hagelin’s best assets is how effective a penalty killer he is. That is supposed to be an asset of Stephenson’s as well. Prior to the team trading for Hagelin, Stephenson averaged 1:54 of shorthanded ice time per game. After? Just 0:58. His shorthanded ice time dropped by almost a full minute which suggests the coaches may not have been all that thrilled with his play on the PK last season.

Prospects

If MacLellan felt he had prospects ready to fill out the roster, he would have done that instead of turning to free agency. It would have been a cheaper alternative both in terms of salary and term. But MacLellan instead went for veteran players and bluntly explained that decision afterward.

“We don't have young forwards ready to step in and play third line,” he said on a conference call on the opening day of free agency. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about where the team sees its forward prospect depth.

If there are any prospects who can make a push for a spot on the fourth line next season, there are two to keep in mind. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is a player with a similar skillset to Hagelin. He has NHL speed and can be a solid penalty killer and bottom-six player.

The second is Shane Gersich, a fast player who came straight to the Caps after signing out of college in 2018, but who spent the last season in the AHL with Hershey.

Jonsson-Fjallby left early in the season to return to his native Sweden last year and has only 16 games of North American experience. It is hard to imagine he will be ready to make the jump to North American’s highest level out of training camp. Having watched Gersicih play in the playoffs, he looks like a player still very much in need of another year in the AHL to adjust to playing in the pros.

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan began tackling the items on his very long to-do list with the signing of prospect forward Shane Gersich. The team announced Monday that Gersich was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract that carries a cap hit of $700,000.

Gersich will remain a restricted free agent at the end of the deal but will still be one year away from becoming arbitration eligible.

Gersich, who will turn 23 in July, just finished his first full professional season with the Hershey Bears, recording eight goals and 16 assists in 66 games.

“I learned a ton,” Gersich told NBC Sports Washington about his first AHL season. “I think our staff here is unbelievable. They've taught me so much, whether it's [showing] me video or doing skills or whatever. Can't say enough good things about them. And just my overall game, playing 200 feet and being aware of little details in the game. I think my game's grown a ton.”

Gersich’s original contract was for two seasons, but the first year was burned at the end of the 2017-18 season when he signed out of college at the end of the season and joined the Caps’ roster.

That transition from Stanley Cup champion to AHL the following season was a tough one for Gersich initially.

“Obviously, you were making your NHL debut and stuff like that, then it's kind of back to work and square one,” Gersich said. “For me, I know [I'm] definitely not the kid that's going to shy away from working or anything like that. So obviously, you've got to earn everything you get, and then that's how it is at every level.”

The speedy forward played in five games for Washington, three in the regular season and two in the playoffs during the Stanley Cup run. His speed was evident and has led many fans to wonder if the future is now for the young forward. His first year in Hershey showed, however, he still has a lot to learn before he reaches the NHL.

Gersich is still very much learning the game at the professional level. There was a little too much reaction in his game as opposed to action, which mitigated his speed. That is something he knows he needs to refine.

“I think just always being aware out there,” he said when talking about aspects of his game he wants to improve on. “Keeping my head on a swivel and making little plays. Just using my strengths too, I think. I've got to realize that I can use my speed out there a lot.”

The Caps will have a few roster spots open next season and not much money under the cap to fill those spots. Using young prospects is always an intriguing option. Gersich’s new contract, however, seems to indicate the Caps anticipate him spending the season in the AHL.

Gersich’s new contract carries an NHL salary of $700,000, which is actually lower than his first contract with a $925,000 salary. His minor-league salary, however, went up from $70,000 to $115,000. It may look like Gerisch is getting a pay cut based on the NHL numbers, but he actually is getting a raise because, barring a dazzling training camp, he will be spending most if not all of next season in Hershey. And if he does surprise, well now he has a lower NHL cap hit which is very important for a Washington team that will likely be very close to the salary cap.

While the implications of the contract seem clear, Gersich is excited for the opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL at training camp in the fall.

“Obviously, I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “It's been my goal my whole life, and that's the reason I left North Dakota. I think I'm ready for it, but you've got to wait and see until the time comes.”

The Caps also announced Monday the re-signing of forward Brian Pinho to a one-year, two-way contract. His contract carries a $700,000 NHL salary and a $100,000 AHL salary.

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Key Caps questions: What rookies will have an impact next season?

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Key Caps questions: What rookies will have an impact next season?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: What rookies will have an impact with the Caps next season?

In the team's push for the Stanley Cup the last few years, the Capitals brought in several veterans through free agency and trades to bolster the roster. As a result, there was not much room for the team's prospects. Last season, however, Washington took a very different approach.

Nine rookie players suited up for the Caps for at least one game in the regular season in 2017-18, the most the team has played since the 2013-14 season. Six rookies also played at least one game in the playoffs. Washington dressed zero rookies in the postseason in each of the two years prior. In fact, that is the most rookies Washington has used in a postseason in franchise history. 

To say the Caps won because they used their young prospects more so than before would be a gross oversimplification, but clearly there was value to adding cheap, young, talented players to the lineup.

But by returning virtually the same roster as last season, there will be little room for rookies to make a similar impact in 2018-19.

Here's a projected roster of the Caps' opening night lineup:

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky - Lars Eller - Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson - Nic Dowd/Travis Boyd - Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Christian Djoos - Madison Bowey

Braden Holtby
Pheonix Copley

Barring injury, there's just not much room there for the young players to break in.

Of the players who still qualify as rookies, the ones to watch are Boyd, Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich, Liam O'Brien, Riley Barber, Jonas Siegenthaler and Ilya Samsonov.

The most obvious answer to the question is Boyd. Jay Beagle's departure leaves a spot open at fourth line center and Boyd would be my pick for the most likely player to fill that role.

The addition of Nic Dowd means Boyd may be the only rookie forward to make the team on opening night. Barry Trotz usually kept only one extra forward and defenseman on the roster, but we do not know if Todd Reirden will have a similar outlook. If there is another spot open, Walker, Gerish, O'Brien and Barber will be in the running. I am not sure I see Walker becoming an every day NHL player, but I could see him coming on as a 14th guy since the Caps have a little bit of breathing room under the salary cap. The same does not go for Gersich who has a higher NHL ceiling. Even though he jumped right into the NHL last season, it is much more likely he goes to the AHL this year to take a large role in Hershey rather than to play scattered minutes in Washington.

O'Brien and Barber also make this list because the clock is ticking for them. Both are 24 and both have spent several years in the organization. They need a strong training camp to prove they belong in the NHL or they risk being viewed less as prospects and more as lifetime AHLers.

Like the offense, the defense also seems pretty set. Of the team's defensive prospects, Siegenthaler is probably the most NHL ready, but I have a hard time believing he will supplant any of the seven defensemen in training camp.

And that brings us to Samsonov.

Samsonov will make his North America debut this fall playing in Hershey. Brain MacLellan has been adamant that Samsonov will be starting in the AHL in order to adjust to the North American game. Just how quickly he can adjust, however, may determine if he earns a jump to the NHL at some point next season.

Samsonov is widely seen as Washington's future in net. While there is no reason to rush him, it is not hard to envision him supplanting Pheonix Copley as the backup should Copley struggle. But first, he has to play well in Hershey.

While the Caps look set throughout the roster, injuries always leave open the possibility for a player to get called up and play his way into a full-time role. As of now, however, it looks like there is not much room for the team's rookies this season, other than Boyd.

Other key Caps questions: