The Washington Capitals kicked off training camp this weekend in what is surely an important year for the Bears NHL affiliate. The last couple of years saw earlier than anticipated playoff exits and this summer saw an influx of new faces to help the Caps get to the next level. Without additional success you could see multiple changes of personnel at the higher end of the organization.
Gone are some longtime role players Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon. In their place are Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, and Jeff Halpern. The defense and goaltending also offer some fresh faces as Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun join the team.
Based on those moves and expectations heading into the season there are approximately 2 roster spots open in Washington. The following are assumed as Capitals on opening night:
Forwards - Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Ward, Brouwer, Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera, Marcus Johannson, Matt Hendricks, Halpern, and D.J. King.
Defense - Mike Green, Dennis Wideman, Hamrlik, Karl Alzner, John Erskine, Jeff Schultz, and John Carlson.
Goalies - Michael Neuvirth and Vokoun.
That is 21. And that does NOT include Tom Poti who is expected to start the season on long-term IR. And may never play again due to a groin injury.
That leaves...as I said before...2 potential spots. (NHL teams are limited to 23 players on the active roster).
So, a quick run through the lines gives us a rough estimate:
Ovechkin - Backstrom - Knuble
Laich - Johannson - Semin
Ward - OPEN - Brouwer
Chimera - Halpern - Hendricks
OPEN - King
Alzner - Carlson
Green - Schultz
Hamrlik - Wideman
This run through identifies 2 forward spots up for grabs. Eventually I believe you will see 2 forwards in those spots. For the immediate future though I could see a defenseman making the club IF Erskine is not able to start the season due to offseason shoulder surgery. If he can't go the Caps would likely keep a defenseman (Orlov maybe) to fill in.
But for the purposes of this post we are going to focus on the more long term prognosis and figure out which two forwards will make the team.
Neither open spot is really an offensively focused position, although any offensive contribution from those spots would surely be welcome.
What the Caps are looking for are defensive forwards who provide some offense. Through the development camp back in July and the rookie camp which concluded this past week, I believe they have narrowed it down to a few names.
Across the internet I have seen a few names thrown out there...
Cody Eakin, Mathieu Perreault, and Mattias Sjogren seem to be the most popular. But I believe 2 other names need to be included in the discussion...Jay Beagle and Chris Bourque. The first 3 names are the front runners for the 3rd line spot while Bourque and Beags are more than likely only playing for the "extra" forward spot. (Which might not be filled at the beginning of the season due to Erskine's injury.)
To figure out which players will get the spots let's consider each player.
Cody Eakin - this will be his first pro season after finishing up his junior career with a run towards the Memorial Cup. His team came up short of the title, but it was a long season that should have helped him prepare for a lengthy pro slate. His game at this stage is likely to be more defensive than offensive as he masters the speed and physical style at the pro level. Of the group he has the highest ceiling and is regarded very highly within the organization.
Mathieu Perreault - he got an extended look last season with the Caps but he couldn't quite stick. Consistency has been the biggest complaint during his multiple call-ups over the past couple of years. He has produced a little in the NHL, 11 goals and 12 assists in 56 games the past 2 seasons, but he can't do it night in night out. His offensive skill is undeniable, but at the same time, so are his defensive liabilities. In all his time in Hershey over the past 3 seasons he rarely plays on the penalty kill and does not draw the bigger defensive assignments. During the offseason he did put on about 10 lbs of muscle and seems as determined as ever to make the big club.
Mattias Sjogren - he has spent his entire career to date in Sweden including the last 3 seasons playing the Swedish Elite League. Now he attempts to make the adjustment to the more restrictive, more physical North American style of play. His size, 6'0" and 220(ish) lbs, will surely help him. His game is more defensive in nature and his offensive ceiling is rather low compared to some of the other players being considered. He is a natural center and has experience taking draws against larger competition.
Jay Beagle - the fan favorite finished last season in the NHL, although he didn't see the ice too much late in the season or in the playoffs. Overall he played in 31 games for the Caps last year and he scored 2 goals and added 1 assist. He is a longshot at best for the 3rd line role, but he could be the front-runner for the 4th line-extra man role. He is even more offensively challenged than Sjogren, although I believe that if given the chance he could surprise some people at the offensive end. He is willing to drop the gloves, hustles every shift, and is a great locker room presence.
Chris Bourque - he had an extended run in the NHL a few years ago when he got 20 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins before ending the season in Hershey. The talent has always been there and we assume is still there after a year in Europe. The questions with him were mainly consistency and size. Like Perreault he has struggled to show up every night and, also like Perreault, isn't exactly the biggest guy on the ice. The good thing for Bourque is that he is very good at the defensive and offensive end. While he might not be the playmaker that Perry is (or that Eakin has the potential to be) he is probably the most consistent performer at both ends of the rink on this list.
The biggest problem for the Caps is that three of these players must clear waivers to come to Hershey. Perreault, Bourque, and Beagle must clear while Eakin and Sjogren can move freely between the NHL and AHL. That could help Perry stay as he is probably the first guy that teams would claim on waivers. Bruce Boudreau and company might want to get another extended look at the diminutive center before letting other teams steal him away.
I don't see that happening. Unless Perry has the best camp of his career and shows up to play (and play very well) in the preseason, I don't see any way that he makes the opening night roster. I love watching him play and offensively he is one of the most talented players in the organization. But I don't see him fitting into the roles they are looking for.
Unless of course he beats out Johannson for the #2 center spot with Marcus moving down to the 3. Which isn't out of the question but is probably unlikely.
So that leaves 4 guys for the 2 spots.
You see some people mentioning how the Caps aren't afraid to send their young players to the AHL for some seasoning. My thought on that is...not recently. Defensemen and goalies...yes. Forwards...not since Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann.
How did that work out?
Obviously this is just a shot in the dark, but my projection, at this point, based on the reviews I wrote above and the "word on the street" is...
Sjogren and Beagle open the season in Washington. Sjogren because he is the most qualified for the 3rd line center position and Beagle because I don't think the Caps want to risk losing him on waivers. Yes, Bourque needs to clear waivers as well, but let's be honest...the Caps aren't real high on Chris so if he were to get picked up it wouldn't be as big of a deal.
Eakin can freely go from Hershey to Washington and should get at least a partial season in Hershey to get used to the more physical game. He has the highest upside of the 5 and there is no reason to put him into a role that he isn't 100% ready for.
The Caps season begins on Saturday, October 8. We will know by then.