Training camp officially gets underway tomorrow, and for the second time in three years, the Caps will gather at Kettler to meet with a brand-new coaching staff. And while a few spots are pretty well locked up (Alex Ovechkin, for example, will probably be worked into the lineup in some way), Barry Trotz and his staff will have the unenviable task of sorting out just who will go where in a roster that has plenty of question marks.
Over the next few weeks the team will start to take shape, and there will be plenty of time to dissect, analyze and argue about each and every one of the coach's choices... but for now, let's start with the basics: who's in, who's out, who's fighting for jobs and what battles might be worth watching?
2013-14 roster*: Jay Beagle, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Martin Erat, Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin, Dustin Penner, Aaron Volpatti, Joel Ward, Tom Wilson
*Note: Players who skated as both wingers and centers last season will be included on both lists
In the mix for 2014-15: Andre Burakovsky, Brouwer, Chimera, Fehr, Stanislav Galiev, Johansson, Tim Kennedy, Kuznetsov, Laich, Garrett Mitchell, Nathan Walker, Ovechkin, Volpatti, Jakub Vrana, Ward, Wilson
Probable Caps: Brouwer, Chimera, Fehr, Johansson, Kuznetsov, Laich, Ovechkin, Volpatti, Ward, Wilson
Potential surprises: Kennedy, Mitchell, Walker
Things to watch: There's a reason why people keep asking Barry Trotz whether he'll leave Alex Ovechkin at right wing or flip him back to left... or at least there's a reason why you should pay attention to the answer. Because whatever decision he makes is going to be crucial in determining how the rest of the lines and available roster spots shake out.
On the Wings...
On the Wings...
For now, it sounds like Ovechkin will kick off training camp back at his old stomping grounds on the left-hand side - and if that's the case, it loosens things up considerably on the right wing, where the team has had a logjam of bodies over the last year or two.
Trotz has already stated that he'd like to keep pairs together, so presumably Ward will stick with Chimera on the third line. That leaves Brouwer, Fehr and Wilson to fight it out for the remaining three spots, and most notably for the spot alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line. All three fit the mold of the kind of player that has worked there in the past, the big body that can open up space for Ovechkin and Backstrom while providing a net presence. Brouwer has actually been that player in the past, while Fehr has seen limited time in the top trio and has looked good doing so.
That just leaves Wilson, who might have the most upside of the three but is also the youngest and most inexperienced. If he isn't able to play his way on to the first line (or at least into the top-six), some tough decisions will have to be made. The fact is that he's probably not a fourth-line player (at least one who got the minutes he did last year), but neither are the other two; if Trotz can't find a way to get him quality minutes, the best option (and one that is finally available) might be to send him to Hershey.
Now if the right side has the toughest competition, the left perhaps has the most flexibility (and the most unknowns).
Lining up behind Ovechkin are Johansson and Laich, third-liner extraordinaire Chimera, Volpatti, and some potential sleeper candidates in free-agent addition Tim Kennedy or 2014 draft pick Nathan Walker. Volpatti's ceiling is fourth-line (at best), and Kennedy and Walker are almost certainly headed for Hershey, so that leaves Johansson and Laich to scrap for the second-line role... except there's a twist, because both Johansson and Laich are centers-turned-wingers, and could be moved back to center if needed. For that matter, so could Eric Fehr, who was more than capable in that role last year. And don't forget converted center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who made his NHL debut last season at wing and could move back there if he's not able to make the transition, and even Andre Burakovsky, who the Caps are also converting from his natural left wing to center.
...so, did you get all of that?
There isn't a whole lot that's set in stone at this point, and for the first time in a long time it looks like just about every forward spot, with a few notable exceptions, is somewhat up for grabs. It's a free-for-all, and that can be a little unsettling... but it also makes it one of the must-watch storylines heading into camp.
2013-14 roster: Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Chris Brown, Nicolas Deschamps, Fehr, Mikhail Grabovski, Johansson, Laich, Michael Latta, Peter LeBlanc, Ryan Stoa, Casey Wellman
In the mix for 2014-15: Backstrom, Beagle, Burakovsky, Johansson, Kuznetsov, Laich, Latta, Wellman
Probable Caps: Backstrom, Beagle, Kuznetsov, Laich
Potential surprises: Burakovsky, Latta, Wellman
Things to watch: Boy, that one training camp of having a legitimate second-line center was fun, wasn't it? Bask in the memory of a simpler time, because with Mikhail Grabovski departing our fair city for the oh-so-charming confines of Nassau County, that ever-present void on the second line is back (to be fair, it never really left since Grabovski didn't see all that much time playing as a 2C). And just as in year's past, the Caps have a couple of internal options to fill that role... albeit none that are overly appealing.
On the Centers...
On the Centers...
Of the players available to fill this role, Kuznetsov is perhaps the best option right now. We know he has the vision and the talent; whether he's able to turn those things into being a good center in the NHL remains to be seen, and one would imagine we'll see plenty of it as training camp rolls on.
If Kuznetsov isn't the guy, Trotz could turn to either Johansson or Laich to fill that role (although Laich would probably be a better fit between Chimera and Ward on the third line), or even go the Adam Oates route and use someone like Eric Fehr at center. 2013 draft pick Andre Burakovsky is a dark-horse candidate to even make the team, let alone fill in as the second-line center, but after his impressive camp performances he has to at least be in the mix, as is Casey Wellman, who was very good in limited action with the team last season.
There's much less intrigue when it comes to the first and fourth lines, as Nicklas Backstrom is this team's 1C for the foreseeable future and that fourth-line spot appears to be Jay Beagle's to lose... but don't discount the possibility of someone like Latta or Wellman moving in on that territory with a strong camp.
2013-14 roster: Karl Alzner, Julien Brouillette, John Carlson, Connor Carrick, John Erskine, Mike Green, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, Dmitry Orlov, Cameron Schilling, Nate Schmidt, Tyson Strachan, Alexander Urbom, Patrick Wey
In the mix for 2014-15: Alzner, Carlson, Carrick, Erskine, Green, Hillen, Matt Niskanen, Oleksy, Brooks Orpik, Orlov, Schilling, Schmidt
Probable Caps: Alzner, Carlson, Erskine, Green, Hillen, Niskanen, Orpik, Orlov
Potential surprises: Oleksy, Schmidt, Schilling, Carrick
Things to watch: Last year the Caps went into camp with a lot of questions on the blue line, most notably (but not limited to) who would round out the second defensive pair. And while the team had a revolving door of defensemen suit up over the course of the season, the pressing questions were never really answered - and on many nights the blueline more closely resembled that of an AHL squad then a legitimate NHL defense.
On the Defense...
On the Defense...
That won't be the case this time around, as at least five of the top-six defensemen are pretty well locked in; the additions of Niskanen and Orpik give the Caps a ton of depth, with the biggest decisions largely limited to who plays with whom and in what situations. The key will be finding the right fit among the defensive pairs. Say what you will about his contract (and yes, we could say a lot), but when the alleged "worst" guy on your blueline is Brooks Orpik... that's not bad, and it's a huge upgrade from last year.
So as far as actual roster spots are concerned, it comes down to the bench guys, the 6-7-8 defensemen who will fill in whenever needed and spend the rest of the time in the pressbox. Orlov played well last year (once he finally got the chance to do so) and should be first in line for that 6th spot once he regains full health. Beyond that, it's likely that veterans Erskine and Hillen have a leg up for the 7th and 8th D; that said, the team suddenly has a ton of younger, cheaper options available in guys like Schmidt, Oleksy and Schilling, any of whom could overtake one or both with a strong camp.
2013-14 roster: Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, Philipp Grubauer, Jaroslav Halak
In the mix for 2014-15: Brandon Anderson, Holtby, Grubauer, Edward Pasquale, Justin Peters
Probable Caps: Holtby, Peters
Potential surprises: Grubauer
Things to watch: The Caps' goaltending situation has been a tenuous one ever since the departure of Olie Kolzig back in 2008, but never more so than last year. Whether it was the attempt to carry three goalies or the trade demands of Michal Neuvirth or the addition of former Caps' nemesis Jaroslav Halak or just the simple, gradual destruction of Holtby's confidence... it was an absolute mess and it showed, at both a team and individual level.
On the Goalies...
On the Goalies...
With a couple of key offseason moves, however, it feels as if the ship has been righted.
First, the team brought in longtime Nashville goaltending coach Mitch Korn to do what he's done for decades - get the best out of his goaltenders, and hopefully restore some of the confidence that Holtby lost at the hands of his former coaches. Second, they brought in veteran backup Justin Peters, a solid goaltender but likely not someone who was going to compete for the starter's job. It was a small signing, relatively speaking, but it was a huge one for Holtby and the team - because by signing a true backup, management is officially handing the reins to Holtby as the Capitals #1 goaltender.
With Holtby and Peters set to split the bulk of the goaltending responsibilities this season, and Philipp Grubauer staying in Hershey for at least this season, there's not a lot of drama in the crease as training camp gets underway.
So what is there to watch from a goaltending perspective? Just keeping an eye on Holtby's return to form (we hope) and Grubauer's continued development should suffice. Beyond that, well... Korn's props seem kind of fun. You can watch those.