Photos: Washington Capitals
Last year’s offseason was a boring one by all accounts for the Washington Capitals. The team just came off of a President’s Trophy winning season, only to be ousted by a team we don’t speak of in the 2nd round. Last summer the Capitals made bottom six additions like Lars Eller and Brett Connolly and bottom six subtractions like Jason Chimera, but there wasn’t much change to the Capitals top six or top four.
Fast forward to this summer and the Caps are coming off of yet another President’s Trophy winning season, only to be ousted by a team we don’t speak of again, but things are far from boring.
“I’ve come into the last two training camps and there really isn’t any jobs,” head coach Barry Trotz stated on the first day of training camp. “And it’s tough to go into the room and basically have to say ‘We’re just trying to get an order’ but our team was set in stone.” That’s not the case this summer.
Six roster spots are available for any newcomer to take, which includes a spot in the top six forwards and the top four defensemen. Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom echoed this thought, “It will be great. There are more spots open. It’s a pretty wide open camp.”
Most of those coveted spots will be taken by the young kids that have been developing in Hershey for the last couple years. To some, the idea of bringing in new kids that have little to zero NHL experience would scare them, but for at least some of the Caps and their staff, they see it as a good thing. As the General Manager Brian MacLellan said, “We’re trying to make a competitive environment here.” He continued, “I think the young guys are out to prove and earn a job. I expect a lot of energy out of them.”
When you have players fighting each other (sometimes literally) for spots, it gets players to play their best. Last season it was very easy for the Capitals’ veterans to take it easy in training camp, knowing unless they were hurt, no young kid was going to take their spot. Vezina winning goaltender Braden Holtby agreed saying, “Anytime you have a chance to make a team it pushes you a little harder. It’s how all of us got here, it’s the nature of things. And that’s a good thing to have, especially to have some competitions. Some guys are really fighting for an opportunity and that’s good. It pushes everyone else to step it up quicker.” Holtby continued, “We have some rosters spots that are up for grabs and that should make for a pretty intense camp. It should push us to be going faster and that’s a good thing.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov, now entering his 4th full year for the Capitals, just turned 25 but is looked at as one of the veterans for the young kids coming in. He might be one of the best players to look up to since he isn’t too far from his rookie season. He still remembers what it was like to fight for a spot and what they can do for the team. “For me personally, when young guys have a chance to make the team it’s always better for the team.” The Russian continued, “I remember when I was back and had a chance to make the team it always helped you to be better. It forced the other guys to be better too.” Just how much a player like Kuznetsov could help the young blood improve, it’s the kids that can put a fire under the older players rear ends to push them to the next level.
Backstrom summed it up pretty well, “I think it’s just a great opportunity to get the young guys involved and create good chemistry as a team because that’s maybe what has been our problem.”
Can that be the missing piece over the last two seasons? Some young blood to press the roster? It worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins (yes I had to finally say their name) who went on to win two Cups these past two seasons. They wouldn’t have those Cups if it wasn’t for young players like Conor Sheary, Tom Khunackel, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, and Jake Guentzel that broke into the roster. Nothing against those young Penguin players, but the Capitals have better players (outside Guentzel) pushing for a spot from the AHL. So if they can find that chemistry Backstrom is mentioning then maybe it’s exactly what the Caps need to get over that hump.
Training camp has just begun, preseason hasn’t started, but you can already sense the urgency in all of the players. Nothing is guaranteed anymore. Trotz mentioned the AHL kids have been seasoned and are ready for the next step. Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Nathan Walker, and many others are gnashing at the bit and knocking on the door. With all of the spots open and the amount of talent starting to rise expect the urgency and excitement to continue throughout training camp.
By Luke Adomanis