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Schmidt, Grubauer prepare for a full season in the NHL


Schmidt, Grubauer prepare for a full season in the NHL

Few players are able to jump right into the NHL when they are drafted, it takes time to develop into a professional player. Some never make the transition from juniors or the AHL to the NHL. Others are only there for a short period before being sent back down. When players do make that transition and start the season knowing they are in the NHL full-time, players are filled with a mix of excitement and relief.

"It's tougher sometimes when you're on that bubble and you don't want to get too tied into one place or another," said defenseman Nate Schmidt. "But knowing I have that opportunity just to focus on where I am right now and kind of get settled in and move out of the hotel and find a place, all those things kind of play a factor."

"I'm really happy to be here because I got sent down a lot of times the last couple of years so staying around this time is a really great feeling and I really appreciate it," said goaltender Philipp Grubauer.

Schmidt and Grubauer are two players making the jump from the AHL to the NHL this season. Both players have seen time with the Caps before, but were unable to crack the regular roster. That appears different this year with Schmidt expected to team up with Dmitry Orlov as the team's third defensive pair and Grubauer expected to be the team's primary backup goaltender behind Braden Holtby.

But making the NHL is one thing, staying there is another. There is a long list of promising prospects who never were able to reach their potential once they made it into the NHL. If players don't realize that reaching the NHL is not the end goal and continue working to improve, they may end up out right back in the AHL.

"It's just more how you handle it as a player," Schmidt said. "For me, it obviously feels great to know you're going to be in this organization, but it's the NHL. It's a business, you have to make sure you produce and be consistent on a daily basis."

For Schmidt, that means pairing up with Orlov to make up for the loss of Mike Green.

RELATED: Backstrom's status creates uncertainty for Burakovsky

Though he was a defensemen, Green's main contribution to the Caps came at the offensive end of the ice. Obviously Schmidt and Orlov will need to play well on defense, but they also have to make sure the team does not take a significant step back offensively as well. 

"I think that we're going to surprise some people because we can move the puck so well and get up in the play and skate," Schmidt said.

"Mike Green's a heck of a player. He's irreplaceable, but I think there are some tangible assets that both Dmitry and I are going to bring to the table."

Grubauer will face a very different task as he goes from being the starting goalie in Hershey to the backup in Washington.

"For me it's going to be a different challenge this year because I probably won't face as many games as last couple of years," Grubauer said.

Grubauer played in 49 games last season in Hershey and one with the Caps, 45 the year before that between the AHL and NHL and 56 in 2013-14 in the ECHL, AHL and NHL. Peters, Holtby's former backup, played in only 12 games last season. Clearly, Peters struggled with the lack of opportunities which started a rough cycle. Peters couldn't get any better without more playing time, but he couldn't get any playing time because he was playing so poorly.

It now falls to Grubauer to be able to step in for Holtby whenever the Caps call on him, even if those opportunities are few and far between.

When asked how he would handle his new role, Grubauer said, "Practice, practice, practice. Prepare yourself mentally for the challenge out there and I think that's all you can do."

Schmidt, who played with Grubauer in Hershey, doesn't anticipate that Grubauer will have any trouble adjusting.

"He has that ability to go in and be that star goalie for us that we need him to be or just to pick up the games if Holts can't go."

That was evident last season in the playoffs when Grubauer was called up from Hershey to start Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals when Holtby was sick. Grubauer came in and made 18 saves for the win over the New York Islanders in his only postseason appearance.

Both Grubauer and head coach Barry Trotz also mentioned the importance of having the opportunity to work with goalie coach Mitch Korn on a daily basis this season. For a 23-year-old netminder, that level of coaching will be invaluable to him in his NHL career.

While the move to the NHL was long in coming, both Schmidt and Grubauer's stay will be brief if neither player is able to perform. They may have accomplished their dreams of reaching the NHL, but now the hard work really begins.

MORE CAPITALS: Capitals are improved, but will they win the Metro?

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Did Sunday's practice lineup show who the Caps' fourth line center will be?

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Did Sunday's practice lineup show who the Caps' fourth line center will be?

The Capitals had a very familiar look to them when their first group took to the ice for Sunday’s practice. With 41 players on the roster, the team is still split into two groups with each practicing at different times. The first group on the ice Sunday, however, looked an awful lot like what the Caps’ lineup could look like on opening night:

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

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos

Braden Holtby
Pheonix Copley

With Dowd playing on the fourth line with the rest of the NHL roster, did head coach Todd Reirden tell us Dowd is the front-runner to win the center job?

Jay Beagle’s departure in the offseason left the team in need of a fourth line center and it has been an open competition all throughout camp. Sunday’s lineup seemed to be the best indication yet which way the coaches may be leaning.

But don’t read too much into that, Reirden said. That job is still very much up for grabs.

“I still think it's a competition,” Reirden said after practice. “The lines will be different tomorrow. We just wanted to do a particular practice that involved that group of more veteran roster guys, it's still definitely a full-on competition. You'll see different players in that game on Tuesday and you'll see different lines tomorrow. That was just by design to get some familiarity with some players that have played in the past together and see how that looked at this stage of camp.”

Dowd also said after practice that he certainly did not take Sunday’s lineup to be any indication of where he may stand with the coaches.

“I spent so much time my first couple years of pro just trying read in to where you are, what's the lineup and it just causes a lot of worry,” he said after practice. “You ask a lot of players, it's just a waste of time. I just find my name and move on and that's the case every day.”


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Sergei Shumakov remains a work in progress but that’s to be expected

Sergei Shumakov remains a work in progress but that’s to be expected

There is a lot of excitement over Capitals’ new winger Sergei Shumakov.

The transition from the KHL to the NHL, however, may take longer than the preseason will allow.

When Evgeny Kuznetsov heard the rumors about Shumakov possibly moving to the NHL, he was quick to reach out.

“I call his agent and call him and they said, ‘Yeah, we have a couple teams,’” Kuznetsov said. “And, then, ‘What do you mean a couple teams? It’s only one team.’ Then, after that, they signed after a couple of days.”

Thus the transition from the KHL to the NHL began.

General manager Brian MacLellan worked to keep the Capitals’ championship roster largely intact and made very few additions to the team.

Nic Dowd was signed on July 1 to compete for the fourth line center role left open by Jay Beagle’s departure. The second addition was Shumakov, a Russian player about to turn 26 with no North American experience.

Shumakov appears to be the latest of the low-risk, high-reward moves MacLellan has routinely made since taking over as general manager. The team took similar chances on Brett Connolly who has become a staple on the Caps’ bottom six and Devante Smith-Pelly who signed in 2017 after the New Jersey Devils bought him out of his contract.

“We see a player that has the ability to score and high-level skill,” MacLellan said of Shumakov. “We're not sure how it translates over here yet. We're just going to let him come in and find his way and put him in some spots and see what he can do."

Shumakov hails from the same town as Kuznetsov, Chelyabinsk, which is why Kuznetsov first reached out to Shumakov to recruit him.

“We’ve been together from 5 to 17 years old and play on the same line, so it’s always nice to have your friend,” Kuznetsov said.

But as excited as he is, Kuznetsov is also not naïve to the challenge that now faces Shumakov.

Fans are understandably excited about what Shumakov can add to the team as a tremendously skilled winger who scored 17 goals and 40 points in 47 games in the KHL last season. But the transition from the KHL to the NHL can be a challenging one.

What makes it so difficult?

“Everything,” Kuznetsov said. “The language, the game, the lifestyle, the mentality. It’s not easy when you’re 26 and you have to change everything in your life.”

The ice is smaller in North America meaning players have less room to maneuver. That makes the game faster paced and a lot more physical.

It is a transition that not everybody is able to make. For every Kuznetsov, there is a Vadim Shipachyov who lasted only three games in Vegas last season before he went back to the KHL.

That makes the preseason critical not just for the team to evaluate Shumakov, but also for him to adjust to the game.

Camp got off to an inauspicious start as visa issues delayed his arrival. Shumakov missed the first two days of camp and did not hit the ice until the fourth day. There is also a language barrier to work through as he does not speak English. When he finally did get on the ice, Reirden grouped him with the team’s other Russian players who could quickly get him up to speed on everything the coaches were saying.

Shumakov made his preseason debut on Friday and showed he is very much still a work in progress. He took a high-sticking penalty on his very first shift and ultimately finished the game with one shot on goal and no points.

With the regular season looming, Shumakov will likely need more time to adjust than the preseason will allow. One option that the team has, however, is to send Shumakov to the AHL. Not only is Shumakov on a two-way contract, but he is also waiver exempt meaning there is no risk in re-assigning him to Hershey.

The best thing to help Shumakov transition will be to play as much as possible. With the regular season only two weeks away, he may need a trip to Hershey before he is ready.

“He’s a skilled player and he can bring a lot of offensive chances to our game,” Kuznetsov said.