ARLINGTON, V.A. — The Washington Capitals are just four days away from the season opener, but there’s still work to do with regard to training camp, and with that, big decisions to make.
Washington will close out the preseason on Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, where a couple of the fringe guys will draw in for their last chance to show what they can do in a game. Then, the team will hold a practice on Sunday, which will mark a major turning point for the team.
All teams must place their final cuts on waivers — if required — by Sunday at 2 p.m. ET. Then, by Monday at 5 p.m., the 23-man opening night rosters are due to the league.
The Capitals still have a lot of decisions to make, and head coach Peter Laviolette is taking everything into consideration going into the weekend.
“I think that all of that factors into it. I think training camp factors into it, how they did in the games, the kind of camp they had overall, all of it’s gonna factor into it,” Laviolette said. “What we need, our needs up here and goals, needs. And so all of that factors into the decision-making.”
Here are some of the storylines, what to know & who to watch as training camp comes to an end and Washington gets back into the swing of the regular season.
Washington Capitals Fringe Players Getting Last Look
Right now, there are six fringe players waiting to see if they’ve cracked the opening night roster: Aliaksei Protas, Joe Snively, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Brett Leason, Henrik Borgstrom and Lucas Johansen. Protas, Snively and Johansen are the only players from this group getting to play in the preseason finale. AJF, Leason and Borgstrom will be scratched.
Regarding who has shown the most at camp, there are two frontrunners for a spot.
Protas is the first. The 6-6, 235-pound forward is a versatile player who has switched from center to wing with ease and can play a variety of goals, and after a strong offseason that saw him work on his skating and gain 10 pounds in muscle, he has shown better speed, power on offense and more strength. He has dressed in each preseason game, and right now, it looks like he’s a lock for the roster.
With him on the rise, also keep an eye on Connor McMichael. The 21-year-old didn’t have the strongest start to the preseason, but with it winding down, he has gained a step, playing with speed and vision, getting to the right areas, making players and improving on the backcheck. He is looking to compete not just for a top-6 role but a spot in the lineup as a whole with Protas making a splash.
Then, of course, there’s Joe Snively. Snively had an outstanding start to his NHL career last season, dishing seven points in 12 games to open his rookie campaign in D.C. However, a wrist injury and subsequent surgery led him to miss the rest of the campaign. He remains at camp now and is looking to win back the spot he earned last year. His preseason and camp have been decent, though in this last game, he’ll have to make a splash to force Laviolette’s hand.
As of right now, it doesn’t look like AJF, Leason or Borgstrom will begin the season in D.C. They had good camps but just didn’t show as much as Protas and Snively. And, with limited vacancies, there isn’t much room to keep them on.
This brings us to Lucas Johansen. The 24-year-old blueliner, who went in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft, is finally seeing his NHL dream come to life. He is one of eight defensemen remaining, and the team could very well have him on the roster to start the season as either a seventh defenseman or one of the extras along with Matt Irwin. Johansen has shown great puck-moving ability, mobility and playmaking skill, and his skating and poise has taken a major step forward as well. With the way he is playing and has overcome adversity over the last few years while sticking with his development, expect him to make the NHL jump one way or another.
Who Makes It & Who Doesn’t, Positions Up For Grabs
Who makes the team, of course, will depend on how the team rolls the lineup out. The 23-man roster can consist of 13 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies, or the team could go 14-7-2. Last season, the Capitals ran with eight, having Irwin and Michal Kempny up later in the season.
So, as of right now, it appears the following players are more likely to make the roster: Protas, McMichael & Johansen. Those getting a last chance/on the edge: Jonsson-Fjallby, Leason, Borgstrom, Irwin.
Then, there are the battles to watch. The second-line center job is still not a lock, per Laviolette, but so far, there’s a clear frontrunner in Dylan Strome. Then of course, the team needs to decide on its middle-6 identity and needs to figure out who will play in Hagelin’s spot on the fourth line with Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway.
On the blue line, there is a vacancy alongside Trevor van Riemsdyk, though it appears Erik Gustafsson is the winner going into the regular season.
Washington Capitals To Watch
When it comes to roster players to keep an eye on, there are quite a few.
Alex Ovechkin came into camp in great shape, and during practice, he hasn’t missed a beat. He is still shooting the puck with his signature power, getting to the right areas and moving quickly. The 6-3, 238-pound left wing still has plenty to prove and is just 22 goals away from passing Gordie Howe for the second-most goals in NHL history and 115 away from breaking Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record. He must average 29 goals per season to break the record within the remaining years of the extension he signed in 2021.
There are also new additions that are ready to make a splash. Connor Brown brings a lot of tenacity to that first line, and he has shown that he can do quite a bit of damage as well. He is also a versatile special teams player who can play the bumper spot on the power play and also lead the way as a top penalty killer.
But perhaps the most interesting forward addition this offseason is Strome. Strome has been on fire to start the preseason with two goals and an assist in three games. The 25-year-old, who signed a one-year deal as a free agent after not receiving a qualifying offer from Chicago, has been showcasing speed, responsibility in his own end and power on offense. He looked good on the half wall and down low on the PP, and at even strength, he has won draws and proven that he is a capable second-line center.
Of course, defensively, the biggest summer additions were Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren. They replace Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, two young netminders who couldn’t exactly find consistency or take the reins as the sole No. 1 in D.C. Kuemper is coming off a Stanley Cup, and the 32-year-old is a proven veteran and starter that makes all the right saves and can come up big. Lindgren, meanwhile, had a great run in the NHL and AHL last season and has looked solid as the backup in the District so far.
Also on the blue line, Gustafsson is replacing Justin Schultz. The puck-moving blueliner has great skating and mobility, and he has worked well as a strong two-way presence for the Capitals so far. He has won the spot playing alongside Trevor van Riemsdyk, who switches back to his natural right side.
Washington Capitals Injury Report
As was the case in 2021-22, Washington will start the year with injuries. Nicklas Backstrom is out indefinitely after undergoing hip resurfacing surgery in June. The procedure, which has ended the careers of some, requires a long rehabilitation, though Backstrom is optimistic he’ll be back at some point. Still, he will likely go on the long-term injured reserve.
The same can be said for Tom Wilson, who is “ahead of schedule” while recovering from ACL surgery but has ways to go before hopping back into game action. Carl Hagelin, meanwhile, is out long-term with an injury unrelated to his eye and will likely be on the LTIR as well.
Then, of course, there are other ailments to keep an eye on, though they’re not as serious (or so it seems). T.J. Oshie and Dmitry Orlov are day-to-day with upper and lower-body injuries respectively, but both skated on Saturday in blue non-contact jerseys and were skating, shooting and stickhandling well. Oshie was hurt in the 4-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday after taking a strange hit to the boards from Joe Veleno. Orlov, meanwhile, finished the game but is dealing with an undisclosed injury.