With 3 of 7 games gone in the pre season, it seems a good time to look at some of the expected issues and battles and see how things are playing out so far. The one caveat is, it is just 3 games in a pre season that’s front loaded with games. Also worth mentioning is that per coach Trotz the lines for the first 3 games haven’t been put together with an eye towards the regular season, so we shouldn’t read too much into things from that angle.
Now that I’ve premised this look in with the above, let me immediately violate what I just said. The first line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie does seem a likely candidate to start the season assuming Nick Backstrom isn’t ready for the first game. With that in mind, we can assess that group somewhat critically. The first thing is, they’ve looked pretty darn good. Not really that shocking given the playmaking abilities we saw blossom last spring with Kuznetsov on the ice. Still, seeing Kuznetsov and Ovechkin jell quickly and how easily Oshie has stepped into the mix so far is all good news. One critical and notable angle is the face-off issues we knew might be a problem. In the first game, it was an issue but in the second game things looked much better with Kuznetsov winning 47% for the night. Sure we’d like to see above 50% but the improvement from one game to the next was dramatic. It’s too early to say that won’t still be an issue but it is encouraging.
While we’re on Kuznetsov, it’s worth taking a look at his play in an individual sense. One of the questions coming into camp was not just how his play would continue to evolve, but could he pick up where he left off when the playoffs ended? Two games in, it seems like he’s picked up a few steps ahead of where he finished up. The confidence in his game is visible as is the work he put in over the summer. If he can continue to improve in the face-off dot there’s every reason to believe he’ll be challenging Backstrom as the best center on the team very soon. And yes, that is a very big compliment to Kuznetsov. The kid is that good! That’s not saying he’s Backstrokes equal in every area, or will be, they are different players. Backstrom’s passing abilities are among the elite of the elite in the game. Kuznetsov on the other hand can lay down a pass from angles and positions on the ice where no one is expecting a thing. Backstrom does the expected as well as anyone in hockey while Kuznetsov does the unexpected and makes it look easy. Very different but equally threatening to opposing defenses. The great thing is the cross pollination we can expect as time goes on. Not only will Kuznetsov continue to get better but Backstrom may learn some new tricks as well. I don’t foresee Trotz breaking up Ovechkin and Backstrom for any length of time but he’ll have the option and the Caps will have perhaps the best pair of centers they’ve ever had.
One surprise so far has been in the goalie situation. Most, assumed Holtby was the number one and Grubauer the backup. That may still be the case and no one should question who the number one is, but Dan Ellis is making his case to be the backup in place of Grubauer. And that’s not because of Grubauer’s play either. He’s done nothing to lose that spot. Ellis has just been really good. I do think the writing is on the wall, more now than ever that Peters is headed to Hershey. It will be interesting to see how Grubauer responds to the challenge as he gets more time in net. [Update: Dan Ellis wqas placed on waivers at noon today].
Derek Roy seemed a possibility to crack the roster but a semi long shot when the pre season started. He doesn’t look like a long shot at all today. With two games under his belt he’s had a spectacular game and a pretty darn good one. Burakovsky is seeing time at center as well, which would potentially crowd the position with a healthy Backstrom, but if camp ended today I don’t see how Roy doesn’t make the cut. He’s done everything asked of him and then some. He’s even been surprisingly good in the face-off dot given his career numbers. He won 67% in the Montreal game! We may be finding out that against 3rd line competition, Roy is more than competent in the circle. When you add in some PK time, the package Roy is presenting is looking like a very enticing fit for the Capitals needs.
The flip side of the Roy situation is that a few guys should be feeling some heat. Jakob Vrana has played very well but youth and numbers may be working against him having a real shot to stick at the start. Galiev has played well also but likewise is looking more like the future than the present. For both of those guys they were an outside shot anyway and the signs still look really good long term. The guy who may really be on the bubble is Michael Latta. He brings a different dimension which may save him as a 4th liner but he has to be feeling some pressure.
Looking at the defensive side, things seem a bit more in flux. With three games gone Orlov looks like a lock. He’s come back as strong or stronger than hoped for, and it seems unlikely he falls out of the top 6 much less the top 7. Nate Schmidt still seems in good position to take another spot. Conner Carrick on the other hand has had one bad game (3 questionable penalties) and one pretty solid game. With a couple of NHL veterans in camp he’ll need to show more if he wants to stay in DC and that still might not be enough.
It’s still early and a lot can still change but the competition is heating up about as well as could be hoped for. The next four games we’ll get a better idea of what coach Trotz is thinking by looking at his lines and the cuts. Given his stated preference for a 22 man roster versus 23, and the level of play we’re seeing at key positions, there will be some difficult cuts at the end. That’s all good news for depth and for the team we’ll put on the ice against New Jersey opening night. Things are on track and looking good!
By Ernie Mudd