Hockey is upon us. This Friday marks the start of the 2018-2019 season for many teams around the NHL. For the Washington Capitals, it will be a different feel. Instead of facing questions about not advancing past the second round of the playoffs, it will be about repeating a Cup run.
With little turnover, there aren’t as many hot storylines to chase, as in seasons past, to see who will win what position, but there are still plenty things to keep an eye on.
The only real battle in camp for a starting position is for the fourth line center position. With the departure of Jay Beagle, it leaves a chance for Travis Boyd or free agent signee Nic Dowd to earn a spot.
When Barry Trotz was head coach he made it known that he and his staff really liked Boyd’s ability, so he probably gets first crack. Dowd has more NHL experience, so if Boyd can’t make it work in preseason, Dowd will certainly get a chance, much like Tyler Graovac did last season.
Along the same lines are the AHL/NHL “tweeners” that could certainly help at the NHL level, but would really have to prove themselves in training camp to earn a stay.
Nathan Walker and Riley Barber are the two biggest names that fit that description. They are NHL-ready, but it will be hard to bump any of the Stanley Cup winning wingers out of the way. To make things dicier, they would need to clear waivers if they don’t make the team. Walker was claimed last season before returning to Washington.
Barber might clear waivers, but will other teams learn from last season, when no one claimed Chandler Stephenson, who ended up being a vital part of the Cup run? More than likely, those two will be fighting to be the #13 forward. The other will likely be sent down.
A similar player is Shane Gersich. Coming from a highly-touted college career, Gersich made his NHL debut last Spring, proving his speed, tenacity and skill will work in the NHL.
Gersich is probably the Capitals best forward prospect, that has top nine NHL potential. But he is ineligible for waivers, meaning if he needed to be sent down to Hershey, no one can pick him up. That fact a lone probably means he’s sent down, but don’t count him out because head coach Todd Reirden singled him out when talking about potential players forcing themselves into the lineup.
Another potential position battle is backup goaltender behind Braden Holtby. Pheonix Copley seems like the lock, as he is most prepared for the NHL. But don’t count out Vitek Vanecek or the highly touted Ilya Samsonov. Yes, the top of the mountain belongs to Copley, but he knows that the Caps brass will have him on a short leash and won’t be afraid to try out the other two if he falters. This might be his last real chance to stick in the NHL, so look for him be on his game.
The late summer signing of Sergei Shumakov was exciting but it still begs the question where he’ll end up. The AHL is a highly unlikely destination for Shumakov, as is the fourth line or the Capitals might end up with a Vadim Shipachyov-type situation. This means he’s destined for top nine, maybe not instantly but eventually. The question is who does he boot? Preseason and camp will give the answer.
There probably isn’t a more motivated player going into camp than Andre Burakovsky. A polarizing player that fans (and probably coaches) either love or hate. There’s no doubt he has top six ability, but his health problems makes him inconsistent. This is the last year of his bridge deal, so he will certainly be looking to prove his high-end ability to earn his next paycheck. With the Capitals being a cap crunch team they’ll be looking for any reason to cut costs next summer, making Burakovsky a prime candidate if he can’t prove his worth. Expect him to come out flying in camp.
Tom Wilson is in a similar boat as Burakovsky. He might have already earned his paycheck, but he still as much to prove, as does Andre. It’s no secret that everyone around the league thought his six-year, nearly $5.2M AAV deal was way too much for a “goon”, but as Wilson showed last season, he’s more than that. Now it’s time for him prove he’s even better than that title. That starts with camp and preseason, where he’ll want to pot some goals early.
Even coming off a Cup win, there’s still plenty to look for in camp and preseason. Reirden is going to want to make this team his own, so who knows exactly what he has up his sleeve. And as always, there are one or two surprise stories that seem to emerge during this time of year. There’s no guarantee on how the team will look, but it is a guarantee there will be some surprises along the way.
By Luke Adomanis