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After making a second round of cuts to their preseason roster, a clearer picture on who will be on the final roster for the Capitals is being drawn. With the added salary cap ceiling cushion that Evgeny Kuznetsov’s suspension provides, it seems as though the Caps could have a 23-player roster on October 1, with Kuznetsov on the suspended list. With competition for depth positions likely to be down to the wire, the question becomes which players not guaranteed a roster spot will make it through.
Beck Malenstyn, Liam O’Brien, Michael Sgarbossa, Shane Gersich, and Brian Pinho were the forwards who survived the second round of training camp roster cuts. Of the five, both Gersich and Pinho are waiver-exempt.
Malenstyn has definitely done enough to make an impression on Head Coach Todd Reirden. In two games played in the preseason, he has an assist, six shots on goal, and seven hits, and although he’s not an offensive juggernaut, he’s very much a physical presence at 6’3” and 200 pounds, attributes that could certainly provide a level of physicality on the fourth-line. He’s also hard on the puck and solid on the forecheck.
O’Brien showed some decent offensive prowess last season in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears, contributing 15 goals and 13 assists in 74 games. He has only played once this preseason (in the team’s most recent game against the Carolina Hurricanes), but he’s another known physical presence that has previously cracked the Capitals’ final roster (in 2014-15). In his first preseason action, he racked up four hits and three blocked shots in 13:18 of ice time.
Pinho, meanwhile, had a strong performance against the Hurricanes, potting two goals. In his rookie season last season in the AHL, Pinho scored four goals and added eight assists in 73 games. Pinho did have offensive numbers at Providence College that may point to more consistent scoring going forward.
Gersich is somewhat of a well-known commodity, but has yet to put up any points in preseason play, albeit in one appearance. He’ll likely get another game or two to prove he is ready for a bigger role. His performance in Da Beauty League this summer clearly indicates his offensive potential.
Sgarbossa has also appeared in just one contest this preseason. While he didn’t record a point, he ended the game with a solid 50% faceoff percentage. After finishing last in the NHL a season ago in that department, Reirden and General Manager Brian MacLellan are likely looking at positional depth at center to help improve those numbers. Sgarbossa has bounced around a bit in his professional career, and has made appearances in the NHL for Colorado, Florida, and Anaheim. He had a strong season in Hershey in 2018-19, notching 30 goals and 35 assists in 75 games played.
With cap relief for the first three games of the season due to Kuznetsov’s suspension, one player will likely be kept out of the five forwards above. Of the five, Sgarbossa or Gersich could be ones to watch to remain with the Caps for at least the first three games of the season until Kuznetsov is reinstated from the suspended list. Additionally, Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd both seem to be strong candidates to start the season in the NHL, meaning there could be just one spot while Kuznetsov is out.
The four defensemen who survived the second round of cuts include Lucas Johansen, Tyler Lewington, Martin Fehervary, and Colby Williams.
The most intriguing player among the four is Johansen. After being selected in the first-round in 2016, Johansen hasn’t made the strides in his game that many expected him to take. Last season he played on the third-pairing in Hershey. This season will be huge for Johansen’s future in the Capitals’ organization, and he’ll need to show he is capable of handling NHL time with a number of other young blueliners making their case.
Fehervary is another interesting case. The second-round pick from 2018 is looking to make his mark in North America after playing in the top professional league of Sweden’s Elite League. At only 19-years old, he has had the added advantage of competing against top professional talent in Sweden, which has definitely streamlined his growth. He looked confident with the puck and in the defensive zone in his only appearance in the preseason to this point (against St. Louis), and had only one questionable play that ended up costing the Caps a goal on a goofy bounce off of a defender’s skate.
Lewington has added value as a defenseman with a right shot, an area the Capitals don’t have a ton of depth in, so the more experience that Lewington can get with the NHL team, the better. He is a strong contender to be the player that is called upon to the NHL if need be and assuming he doesn’t make the Opening Night roster. Although not exactly an offensive force on the ice, he’s defensively responsible and isn’t afraid to play physically. He’s a solid depth defenseman the Caps can count on in a jam, as he proved last season.
Williams played only 36 games for Hershey last season. He doesn’t contribute a lot on the score sheet, but is one of the more penalty-prone players of the four defensemen listed above. He is also a right shot, adding a bit to his value.
The Caps appear to have at least six defensemen chalked up for NHL spots in John Carlson, Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, Radko Gudas, with Jonas Siegenthaler potentially being a seventh. Kempny’s status for Game 1 of the regular season will likely dictate the team’s need and which players get the call, though Lewington and Fehervary appear to be the strongest contenders.
This may be the most intriguing positional battle of the three position groups. It would appear that Braden Holtby’s backup may be up for grabs for a couple of different reasons. Both Vanecek and Samsonov have lower cap hits than the seemingly incumbent Pheonix Copley, and Kuznetsov’s return from suspension will require the team to make roster moves to become cap compliant. Both Samsonov and Vanecek are waivers-exempt, Copley is not.
Samsonov is the goaltender most fans’ eyes have been on this preseason. With Holtby’s contract expiring after this season, many outside the organization expect him to be able step into the NHL. Samsonov has made two appearances this preseason, splitting time with Vanecek in one, while playing the entirety of the other, and has looked solid, stopping 25 of 28 shots he’s faced.
Vanecek is also in the running as the backup to Holtby. Like his goaltending partner in Hershey last season, he has been solid so far, stopping 13 of 14 shots for a save percentage of .929. Last season, he posted a .907 save percentage and a 2.62 goals-against average in 38 appearances. The added benefit of either Vanecek or Copley making the NHL roster is that Samsonov would likely get starter’s minutes in Hershey.
The goaltending battle is perhaps the hardest to predict While Holtby’s status with the team beyond this season is something that will need to be addressed, and Samsonov will need some NHL time if he is to step in to the starter’s role, he is entering just his second professional season in North America. The salary cap situation could be a factor in the decision, but so to will the goalies’ play during the preseason.
The Capitals will have some key decisions to make regarding their final roster and the final few games of the preseason will be a time for the players not guaranteed roster spots to make an impression to have their name in the lineup come the first game of the regular season.
By Justin Trudel