There were noticeably fewer participants when the Washington Capitals returned to the ice Monday, one day after trimming the preseason roster down to 35.
“We felt like we needed to get our numbers down to one group,” Carbery said Monday, “but also feel like there’s a lot of players that are right there and we want to still look at.”
Fifteen players, including Alexander Suzdalev, Ethen Frank and Henrik Rybinski — all NHL longshots — were sent down to the AHL ahead of the start of Hershey Bears training camp, narrowing the group of bubble players contending to make the Capitals’ opening night roster.
A handful of those fringe players still remain, and none appear to be closer to cracking the roster than forward Matthew Phillips and defenseman Hardy Häman Aktell.
Phillips, who joined the organization in free agency this offseason, is in contention for a bottom six spot. A natural winger, he has also lined up at the center spot during training camp in order to maximize his versatility.
Despite his small stature, the 5-foot-8 Phillips has proven to be an elite player at the AHL level. He’s fresh off a season in which he tallied 36 goals, good enough for second-best league-wide, and finished fifth in total points. The year before, he also finished top 10 in both goals (31, seventh) and points (68, ninth).
The major concern, however, is whether Phillips can continue to produce at a higher level, especially one where he will be physically overmatched at a much higher frequency.
“You’re starting to see a player that, obviously, is undersized, but it doesn’t affect him a whole lot when it comes to his compete level, ability to get in on the forecheck, win loose pucks,” Carbery said. “Yeah, he’s gonna get bumped around a little bit, but we just found his game to be really effective of keeping pucks alive, making plays when they’re available, being in good spots … he’s been dialed in, and he’s doing a good job of making a case for himself.”
With Calgary’s AHL affiliate each of the past two seasons, Phillips — under then-head coach and current Capitals assistant coach Mitch Love — was the team’s top offensive weapon, helping guide the team to back-to-back division championships. In fact, Phillips was probably a safe bet on any of the Canadian sports betting top sites.
“Winning hockey,” Carbery said. “They won probably more than 80 games over the last two years, and he’s a first line player in that lineup. So what does that tell me? … he’s doing the things that it requires (for) a team to win, and I have a lot of time for that.”
Häman Aktell carries a similar track record into Capitals camp. The Växjö Lakers HC of the Swedish Hockey League have won two championships in his three seasons with the team, with the defenseman Häman Aktell playing in all but five regular season games during that span.
“I just was saying he’s been one of the pleasant surprises of camp because you never sort of know,” Carbery said. “It’s hard to evaluate when we watch the film from the Swedish Elite League because (of) the ice and the play — it’s really, really difficult.”
Häman Aktell, coming off a 36 point season, has thrown himself into the Capitals’ battle for a sixth or seventh defenseman, a competition stoked by an injury to Joel Edmundson that will sideline him to open the season.
Playing against many of Detroit’s regulars in Saturday’s preseason matchup, he drew the eye of Carbery and many others in the Capitals’ front office.
“I was curious, I was hopeful and he’s been a real pleasant surprise,” Carbery said. “I’ve liked his game a lot.”
The Capitals travel to Boston on Tuesday to kick-off the final three games of the team’s preseason slate. As the Oct. 13’s regular season opener draws closer and closer, all eyes will be on Phillips, Häman Aktell and the few remaining in contention for a roster spot.