The first cuts of the Capitals' training camp have occurred, and the team plays its first pre-season game tonight in Columbus, which means, in addition to getting closer to opening night and genuinely meaningful hockey, we're getting closer to knowing what the 2010-11 version of the Washington Capitals will look like.
Much of the roster is all but set. Forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, David Steckel, Boyd Gordon, D.J. King, and Matt Bradley will almost certainly start the season in Washington (barring injury or trade), along with the seven defenseman who finished the season with the team and the two young goaltenders, giving the Capitals a total of 21 players... and leaving two spots to be won, both at forward.
Provided that the team doesn't make any additional pre-season roster changes, does indeed carry 14 forwards, everyone stays healthy, and no dark horse candidate(s) like Keith Aucoin or Matt Hendricks make an undeniable push, the competition for those two spots should come down to four players: Jay Beagle, Andrew Gordon, Marcus Johansson, and Mathieu Perreault. Make the jump to see what we see as the pros and cons of keeping each, and who we think makes the final cut.
Why he'll make the team: From a development standpoint, there's not much more Beagle can learn (or do) at the AHL level. From a personnel standpoint, Beagle brings qualities the Capitals would be happy to have: grit, size, and the ability to play as a wing or as a center. While Beagle doesn't have the offensive potential of , , or even , he's also already consistently demonstrated an ability to play a bottom six role in North America. That is, his ceiling's undoubtedly lower than the guys he's fighting for a spot, but his floor might not be as low, either.
Why he won't make the team: Beagle probably doesn't bring enough offensive ability to be considered for a third line role, so he's essentially going to be battling Andrew Gordon and whichever of the two centers doesn't win the competition to open the season on the third line. Given that others have more offensive talent - and that Beagle can still be sent to Hershey without having to clear waivers - it's hard to see the upside of keeping him in Washington.
Prediction: Starts the season in Hershey
Why he'll make the team: In his first two professional seasons, Gordon proved his ability to be an effective energy line player at the minor league level; last year he showed that he's capable of being a top-tier AHL points producer as well. To what extent that offensive ability carries over to the NHL remains to be seen, but now is the time to give Gordon a chance to show what he can do at the highest level, especially since Gordon's versatility and the fact he "earns high marks for his work ethic and compatibility in the dressing room" means there's relatively little downside.
Just as importantly, Gordon's waiver-eligible, and a young player with his character and versatility is unlikely to make it through waivers. In fact, if Gordon did find himself on the waiver wire, there's a decent chance he could find himself headed back to Pennsylvania, 250 miles to the Northwest. You know, to a certain NHL team that's always looking for wingers, that claimed a young Capitals player last fall, and whose captain has more than a passing familiarity with Gordon.
Why he won't make the team: The Capitals are deep on the wings, and it'd take an injury for Gordon to see anything more than fourth line minutes. In addition, either Mathieu Perreault (who looked solid in his time in the NHL last year) or Marcus Johansson (who has a better pedigree) is likely to make the team out of camp as the third line center, and Gordon doesn't clearly win out over Perreault, Johansson, or Jay Beagle for the last spot.
Prediction: Breaks camp with the team
Why he'll make the team: Of the four players under consideration, he has the most talent and may be the best player at the NHL level at this point. The case can also be made that come April, Marcus Johansson with a decent amount of NHL experience under his belt gives the Capitals a better chance to win in the playoffs - especially if he progresses more quickly than expected and is a legitimate second liner by the point.
Don't underestimate the power of the "out" clause in Johansson's contract (if Johansson doesn't make the Capitals, he has the option to return to Sweden for the season). In the long run, the Capitals roster is going to be determined by who the coaching staff and front office gives the team the best chance to win; at this point, however, it would make sense to keep Johansson around if the team thinks he could be useful at any point this year. It prevents the Caps from making a commitment they might soon regret and garners favor with the player, hopefully making it less likely he enacts the clause at a later point and leaving the option open for the Caps to send Johansson to Hershey in November or December.
Why he won't make the team: Johansson's the guy with whom the Capitals have the least familiarity, and he's the only one who's never played an NHL game or a North American season. If the Caps decide to go with a risk averse strategy, it could mean sticking with the guys they know the best.
Prediction: Breaks camp with the team... but let's chat again after a pre-season game or two.
Why he'll make the team: Perreault's NHL experience far outweighs that of anyone else in this group, both in terms of quality and quantity, and he has, by all accounts, done very well centering Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera in training camp. Either Perreault or Johansson is going to take the third line center job, and if it's awarded on achievement, as opposed to potential, he has to be the front-runner.
Why he won't make the team: He can be assigned to Hershey without passing through waivers or potentially heading overseas for a year. With so much risk involved with cutting either Gordon or Johansson, there's a very good chance Matty's waiver-exempt status is going to decide his fate.
Prediction: Starts the season in Hershey... even if the Caps don't like it. The reality is where Perreault starts the season is largely, if not entirely, dependent on what the team decides to do with Marcus Johansson. If the team begrudgingly sends Perreault back to Hershey, it wouldn't be the first time the Capitals couldn't field their best team as a result of the CBA (think Karl Alzner in Hershey because Michael Nylander was still on the books, or losing Chris Bourque on waivers).
Without a doubt, tough decisions lie ahead for Caps management, and these four players are likely to be in the thick of those calls; the days and weeks ahead are sure to be interesting ones for players, coaches and fans alike.