After four consecutive first-round exits, the Washington Capitals made quite a few changes this offseason. Though the focus was on revamping the goaltending and adding more depth on the forward lines amid injuries up front, the team also bolstered the blue line.
Justin Schultz‘s departure, along with Michal Kempny‘s, led to the Capitals going from a set blue line and two extra defensemen to quite a few left-handed blueliners vying for the same role, as Trevor van Riemsdyk needs a new partner as he switches back to his natural right side.
It’s bound to be an intense battle, as new additions will go head to head with Washington prospects and a veteran depth player for that final spot. Here’s a look at how the defensive battle stacks up, including different tiers, who could surprise and who’s likely to win.
Tier 1: Likely Capitals Regulars
Erik Gustafsson leads the pack when it comes to winning that third-pairing role alongside TVR. The 30-year-old is coming off a decent year with the Chicago Blackhawks that saw him dish three goals and 15 assists through 59 games. He’s a talented puck-mover with a lot of experience who doesn’t shy away from joining the rush and can contribute offensively. Gustafsson also hit the 60-point mark just a few seasons back, when he racked up 17 goals and 43 assists through 79 games.
Also, he reached the Stanley Cup Final in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season with the Montreal Canadiens and has strong puck-possession numbers over time.
However, there are some areas of Gustafsson’s game that he needs to improve. He hasn’t been able to maintain consistency on the offensive front, and he also could stand to be more physical and stronger in his own end. Still, his style of play would match up well with a versatile van Riemsdyk, who brings a sound two-way play to the table.
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After Gustafsson, there’s Lucas Johansen. The 24-year-old has been waiting long enough for his NHL opportunity, and after a breakout year with the Hershey Bears that finally saw him overcome adversity and past injuries, he showed that he is capable of making that jump to the big club. He had 28 points in 69 games and also got to play in his NHL debut, where he moved the puck well, played smart hockey in his own end and even recorded his first NHL assist/point on a great stretch pass to spring Evgeny Kuznetsov for a breakaway goal.
Still, with Gustafsson, it will be a tough battle, as Johansen still has to add strength. Still, the 6-2, 178-pound blueliner has developed and showed he is capable of finally making the full-time transition to the NHL. He’ll have to battle hard in training camp, but right now, it looks like he’ll at least make the league as a seventh option. And, don’t count him out for a full-time role.
Another likely candidate for a top-tier spot would have been Alex Alexeyev. However, he underwent shoulder surgery in June and, based on the timeline, will miss training camp and possibly the start of the season. Still, don’t rule out a call-up.
Tier 2: Fringe Capitals
Gabriel Carlsson is next in line as he joins the club on a two-way deal. The 6-5, 203-pound defender obviously brings a lot of size to the table, though he doesn’t necessarily make noise as a physical player. He had nine points in 38 games last season and has just 75 NHL games under his belt, though he has played in just two AHL games over the last couple of seasons.
Carlsson, 25, still has yet to find consistency and hit his prime. He possesses an impressive point shot and has the potential to join the rush more and move the puck efficiently, and he also doesn’t shy away from blocking shots. However, he needs to improve when it comes to battling for the puck and being physical, and he also could stand to improve his skating. So, right now, he’s a bit lower on the list for a regular role, but he can definitely move himself up the list if he continues to put in the work.
Matt Irwin is also on the fringe of a regular spot. Head coach Peter Laviolette, who has worked with the veteran for years in both D.C. and Nashville, has called Irwin a “warrior” who knows his role and puts in work every day. Irwin played the role of a No. 7/8 last season, using practices as games and bringing his best ability to the table when he did get the call. The 6-2, 189-pound d-man skated in 17 games last season, scoring a goal and adding three assists while also adding 36 hits and 21 blocks.
Irwin is a physical defenseman who can engage in puck battles and play a physical game, and he’s more defensive-minded. However, like Carlsson, he has an impressive point shot. The 34-year-old also skates well and brings a veteran presence to the table, and he has shown he is a depth option who can put up minutes and still be reliable at the NHL level. However, fierce LHD competition will provide a challenge for Irwin — though this is by no means his first rodeo.
Tier 3: A Potential Dark Horse for the Capitals
A long shot to keep an eye on: Vincent Iorio. As we’ve seen with Hendrix Lapierre, anything can happen at training camp, and anyone can step forward and prove their worth. Iorio is ready to make the pro jump after graduating from the WHL ranks following four years with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He impressed this past season with a career year, breaking out with 11 goals and 33 assists in 60 games. Iorio then came to development camp as a man on a mission and brought forward vocal leadership, strong skating and impressive vision and ability as a puck-moving blueliner.
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If Iorio has a strong camp, he could pull off a Lapierre-like scenario where he cracks the opening night roster. However, given the depth options ahead of him, it appears that starting the year with the AHL’s Hershey Bears would be the best move as he makes his transition to the pro ranks so that he can continue fine-tuning his game rather than watching from the press box.