As the Capitals’ training camp kicks off tomorrow, there are going to be a few storylines fans will want to keep an eye on. The 2019-20 season is set to be one of the more important campaigns in the Alex Ovechkin era, as both Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are in the final year of their current contracts, and the core of the team is beginning to age. The Caps will have to start strong with a pretty grueling start to their regular season schedule, facing eight playoff teams from last season in the first eight games, including the defending champion St. Louis Blues on opening night. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Justin Trudel previews some key aspects of training camp to watch. (Training camp roster and schedule is here).
Positional Battles and the Salary Cap
It’s no secret that the Capitals are one of five teams currently over the salary cap ceiling of $81.5 million, after re-signing both Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. The biggest question appears to which could end up being a salary cap casualty? Fans can expect there to be a fair bit of competition for the left spot on the third defensive-pairing between Jonas Siegenthaler and Djoos and if Djoos were to lose that battle to Siegenthaler, he could be traded to provide the Caps with some relief. There also may be some dark horse candidates for this position, such as Martin Fehervary, who impressed at the prospects tournament.
Additionally, there’s potential questions asked about the team’s goaltending situation, given Holtby’s contract status and the development of top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov. Most expect that Pheonix Copley will retain his spot as the backup goaltender in Washington, but if Samsonov impresses in training camp, do the Capitals send him to AHL Hershey to start the season?
On top of the goaltending and third defensive-pairing, there will be a number of players jostling for a spot on the team’s fourth-line alongside center Nic Dowd, with offseason addition Brendan Leipsic, Travis Boyd, and Stephenson. Stephenson is the most expensive of the three, but his entire salary cap hit can be taken off of the Capitals’ books if he is sent to Hershey. The issue for the Caps, however, is that Stephenson is waiver eligible, meaning another team would have the opportunity to claim him if they attempt to send him to the AHL. It would be surprising if Leipsic wasn’t on the NHL roster after signing with Washington, leaving a possible two-way battle between Boyd and Stephenson.
At the end of the day, the Caps are $1,364,294 over the salary cap ceiling. There will have to be some shuffling of the roster, either via the trade route or through demotions to Hershey. The roster will have to be cap compliant before the start of the season, so training camp will be a big indicator as to who will be staying and who may be on the way out the door.
Michal Kempny’s Health
The Capitals’ defensive performance struggled greatly after defenseman Michal Kempny tore his hamstring against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 20. The chemistry on the defensive pairings was noticeably off in the Capitals’ first round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, and it resulted in multiple defensemen playing on their off-side.
If the team can have a healthy Kempny back in the lineup for the entire season, the team has a very strong chance of improving on their less-than stellar defensive performance last season. While he has been skating in workouts leading up to training camp, the hope is that Kempny will be ready to play on October 2 in the Capitals’ season opener against the Blues.
What Prospects Will Make Their Mark?
Training camp is a great place for near NHL-ready prospects to make a good impression on the front office and coaching staff, since they’ll be practicing and playing in preseason games against NHL-caliber competition. The Capitals have a handful of prospects looking to make their mark this year, including Martin Fehervary, Lucas Johansen, and Alex Alexeyev on the blueline and 2019 picks Connor McMichael and Brett Leason leading the forward prospects, among others.. A full training camp roster can be found HERE.
This will be an especially important training camp for Johansen, in particular. After being selected in the first-round (28th overall) in 2016, Johansen has been largely inconsistent during his time with Hershey. He has yet to see NHL action, and in the final season of his entry-level contract, the Capitals need to see what they have in the left-handed blueliner, who will need to have a strong preseason to indicate to the front office and coaching staff he is capable of being an NHL player.
In addition to their blueline prospects, the Capitals will have a slew of goaltenders with the team in training camp, including highly-touted prospect Ilya Samsonov and 2019 All-Star Vitek Vanecek. Strong performances from either of these netminders may force the front office’s hand with Copley, since both Samsonov and Vanecek have less expensive cap hits than Copley. The Caps also need to see what they have in Samsonov, with Holtby’s contract situation likely making it more urgent than before for the second-year pro to continue to develop into an NHL-caliber netminder.
This season’s training camp is one that will be interesting to watch for a variety of reasons. Many of these storyline will require patience to see how they play out during the preseason, and potentially into the regular season as well, as there are always surprises during training camp who could make for some interesting roster decisions from MacLellan (especially considering the team’s salary cap situation).
By Justin Trudel