It’s been a while since defenseman Aaron Ness felt he had a legitimate shot at earning an NHL roster spot.
“It’s exciting,” said Ness, who’ll be in the lineup Monday night as the Capitals open their seven-game preseason slate in New Jersey. “Anytime there’s a couple of spots open, it always amps it up a bit.”
Ness signed with the Caps as a free agent in July 2015 knowing Washington had a roster stocked with veteran D-men and that he’d likely spend the majority of his time with their minor league affiliate in Hershey. And that’s exactly how it’s played out. Two seasons ago, he saw 62 games in Hershey and eight in Washington. Last season, he played 51 games for the Bears and two for the Caps.
This year, however, things are much different.
The Caps have five defensemen on one-way NHL contracts, which leaves two spots up for grabs if you include the spare.
As such, the competition over the next couple of weeks figures to be fierce, with Ness duking it out with prospects Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Jonas Siegenthaler and journeyman Jyrki Jokipakka, who is on a professional tryout.
“You obviously have to prove yourself; that’s what camp is for,” Ness said. “For me, it’s showing what I can do and showing what I bring to the table.”
Ness’ experience gives him a slight edge over the youngsters; he’s played 39 NHL games since 2012, including 20-game call-up with the Islanders in 2013-14. But it’s his mobility and top-notch skating ability that could end up putting him on the Caps’ opening night roster.
“He’s been really solid down in Hershey and when he’s come up he’s played really well for us,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “The game has gone to skating, so no question, he is a guy that we have some trust in.”
Ness, who is listed at 5-10, 184-pounds, added: “That’s my game there--skating is huge for me. I’m not the biggest guy in the world.”
Asked to describe his game, he said, “I try to make a good first pass out of the D-zone, defend well and then jump up and create as much offense as possible.”
At 27, this also represents Ness' best opportunity of earning an NHL job—and hanging onto it—since he was selected by the Islanders in the second round of the 2008 draft.
“This is the first time where there’s actually been spots available when I’ve been to a camp,” Ness said. “It’s for sure one of the best opportunities I’ve had so far. It’s an exciting time.”
Trotz says he sees a player who needed some additional seasoning in the minors but now appears “ready” to challenge for a full-time role in the majors.
“Different players take different opportunities at different times,” Trotz said. “He’s ready. If he continues to play well, he’ll definitely be in the mix.”
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