With all players present and accounted for (and signed), Caps Training Camp 2013 is officially underway and brings us ever closer to the start of the 2013-14 season. Unlike last year, Adam Oates will have the luxury of a full-length training camp – complete with preseason games - to iron out any kinks and figure out just where everyone is going to fit into the lineup (or if they fit in at all). And while it’s not all that hard to predict where some will end up, other roster spots are certainly up for grabs and the coaching staff will have their work cut out for them as we inch towards October 1.
There will be a few new faces, a few new roles and more than a few questions to be answered in the coming weeks… but let’s start with the basics. Who’s in, who’s out, who's fighting for a job this season and what battles might just be worth watching?
2012-13 roster*: Jay Beagle, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Joey Crabb, Martin Erat, Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin, Aaron Volpatti, Joel Ward, Tom Wilson, Wojtek Wolski
*Note: Players who skated as both wingers and centers last season will be included on both lists
In the mix for 2013-14: Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Martin Erat, Eric Fehr, Garrett Mitchell, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin, Aaron Volpatti, Joel Ward, Tom Wilson
Probable Caps: Brouwer, Chimera, Erat, Fehr, Johansson, Laich, Ovechkin, Volpatti, Ward
Potential surprises: Mitchell, Wilson
Things to watch: Potentially the most contested roster spots this fall will be on the wings, where the Caps have far too many bodies and not enough spaces for all of them. It's unlikely that the top half sees much change, aside from the wild card factor of having a new center on the second line. After their success last season neither Ovechkin nor Johansson is dropping out of the top trio, at least to start the season, and it's a pretty safe bet that Erat and Brouwer are locked in on the second line alongside the newest Cap (although either one could face some competition). And after a summer of "he's our second-line center!!" talk, you can probably pencil in Brooks Laich at his rightful place on the third line wing, as well.
That leaves three or four spots for the remaining contenders... and this is where it gets interesting.
Chimera, Fehr, Volpatti and Ward each bring a different skillset to the table and each has shown at least some ability to fill in where needed in the lineup. All four will probably be on the roster, if not in the lineup opening night. That said, it's hardly unheard of for younger guys to push out established veterans in situations just like this, and a strong performance in camp by Wilson or Mitchell could make that decision a bit tougher for the Caps' brass (although Wilson, at least, will need to go above and beyond for the team to risk rushing him into the NHL over another year in Juniors). If that happens, the team may opt for younger/cheaper and any one of those four could find himself on the trade block.
2012-13 roster: Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault, Mike Ribeiro
In the mix for 2013-14: Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Mikhail Grabovski, Brooks Laich, Michael Latta, Mathieu Perreault, Jeff Taffe
Probable Caps: Backstrom, Beagle, Grabovski, Laich, Perreault
Potential surprises: Latta, Taffe
Things to watch: If the wings are chock full of intrigue, the centers are anything but - and for once it's not because the options aren't there. With Backstrom firmly ensconced in the top spot and the addition of Mikhail Grabovski last month giving the Caps a solid second-line center (and an upgrade at that position for the second straight year), the team is pretty well set for their top two pivots. Barring a beyond-amazing camp for someone like Michael Latta, the third and fourth lines will likely be anchored by Perreault and Beagle (although don't rule out Laich pitching in at center every now and then).
Of course, just because there's probably not going to be any intrigue up the middle doesn't mean there's nothing to keep an eye on. The story at center this year will be more about finding the right mix with the introduction of Grabovski. As noted above, Brouwer and Erat are the likeliest candidates to flank the second line - but training camp and the preseason games that accompany it are a time for experimentation, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Oates try out a couple of different options on either side of his new center.
2012-13 roster: Karl Alzner, John Carlson, John Erskine, Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik, Jack Hillen, Tomas Kundratek, Steven Oleksy, Dmitry Orlov, Tom Poti, Cameron Schilling, Jeff Schultz
In the mix for 2013-14: Karl Alzner, John Carlson, John Erskine, Mike Green, Jack Hillen, Tomas Kundratek, Steven Oleksy, Dmitry Orlov, Cameron Schilling, Nate Schmidt, Tyson Strachan
Probable Caps: Alzner, Carlson, Erskine, Green, Hillen, Kundratek, Oleksy, Orlov
Potential surprises: Schilling, Schmidt, Strachan
Things to watch: The Caps suddenly have a lot of options on the blue line; the trick will be to find out which (if any) will be a good fit on the key second defensive pair. Thanks to some injury issues last season, the team got a good look at a couple of different options, including the surprising Kundratek and the solid (and even more surprising) Oleksy - but the shortened season makes it hard to judge whether any of them are a good long-term or even short-term possibility to fill that role.
It's not just the second pair that needs to be decided, of course. There are a lot of question marks throughout the defense, whether it's Orlov's readiness for a regular NHL role or Green's health or Kundratek's and Oleksy's abilities to pick up where they left off last season or Erskine's... something. Hillen is still sort of an unknown commodity thanks to some injuries in an already shortened season, and none of the duos (even Green and Alzner) are set in stone heading into camp. Should be an interesting battle to watch...
2012-13 roster: Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, Philipp Grubauer
In the mix for 2013-14: Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, Philipp Grubauer
Probable Caps: Holtby, Neuvirth
Potential surprises: Grubauer
Things to watch: Oates made no secret of the fact that he had more confidence in Holtby as his starter last season, going with the almost 24-year-old three times as often as Neuvirth (although granted, sometimes injuries made that choice a little easier).
Still, both goalies are coming into camp fresh off of new contracts and each has had his share of lumps - Holtby struggled a bit with consistency last year, while Neuvirth has yet to make a real push for the starter's role or stay healthy enough to do so. The former will probably get the nod again this year but a strong start from Neuvirth (who has a bit of added motivation to perform this year) could make that a tough choice for Oates's staff, including new goalie coach Olie Kolzig. And while he is a longshot to crack the NHL squad this year with Holtby and Neuvirth blocking his way, keep an eye on Grubauer... the homegrown goalie parade continues.