For the first time in a few seasons, the list of key additions to the roster is far less than that of the key losses but as this is being written, the Capitals have a problem—albeit a good problem but it is still a problem nonetheless.
As they head to Chicago for their exhibition finale, the Caps still have 29 players on their roster. Washington must trim the roster to the league maximum of 23 players by Monday. Washington will open the season Tuesday in Chicago. However, any players who require waivers will have to be placed on waivers by noon on Sunday in order to clear waivers prior to Monday’s deadline.
When camp started back on Sept. 12, not many saw this as a potential obstacle for the Capitals. Carrying 29 players into the final weekend of the preseason would mean that many young players have performed exceedingly well during the preseason. With the Caps earning a point in seven of their exhibition games (4-0-3) to date, players such as 19-year old Tom Wilson, who made his Caps debut in the playoffs last season, is likely to have a spot on the final 23-man roster. With a goal and a convincing fight win in Friday’s win over the Flyers, Wilson only helped his cause, as he now has three goals in five preseason games.
HC Adam Oates first season was built off the success he experienced with his captain, Alex Ovechkin. Oates made the decision to shift Ovie from the left wing over to the right and convinced Ovie to stay with it throughout the season. Ovechkin notched 23 goals and 13 assists over the final 23 games, giving him 32 goals and 56 points for the season. He also led the NHL in power-play goals (16) and tied for first with 27 points on the man advantage.
Oates has not forgotten the importance of having Ovechkin on board and buying into what he is selling for this team. Oates followed up with Ovechkin in impressive fashion this past offseason as he took a trip to spend some time with the Great 8 during the offseason---in Russia.
According to Mike Wise of the Washington Post, Ovechkin was genuinely moved by the visit. “He came to me,” Ovechkin said on the first day of training camp. Oates crossed two continents to visit him at home. “He work out with me. He show me some things. He showed me highlights and talk to me.” Asked what Oates communicated that day, Ovechkin replied, “He told me I had good season, but I could be better.”
The five-day trip was an excellent way to get your best player ready to go and if Ovechkin is truly back to form after last season, it may be a long—long season for the rest of the new Metropolitan division. Oates also met with the Capitals' top prospect, forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, taking a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Moscow to Chelyabinsk to do so. While there, the two had dinner twice, and Oates watched the 21-year-old play two games for Traktor of the Kontinental Hockey League.
"I've never seen him play and just there's a chance he's going to be playing for us," Oates said. "I wanted to, kind of a goodwill thing just to let him know that we care. Just a chance to watch and experience some more hockey over there. Super nice kid. We talked hockey. We talked about the games I just watched. It was good. Real good experience."
The Capitals' first-round draft choice (26th overall) in the 2010 NHL Draft, Kuznetsov has yet to appear in Washington minus participating in that summer's development camp. His current contract with Traktor expires at the end of the season and the Capitals hope that their prized prospect, currently sidelined for four to six weeks with a shoulder injury, will finally make his long-awaited NHL debut before the end of the 2013-14 season.
With Ovechkin in line, Oates must turn his attention to the rest of the forwards and making sure the Caps power play, which was an NHL-best 26.8 percent with the man advantage last year, stays productive. Gone is Mike Ribeiro, whom the Caps did not try to re-sign. The now Phoenix Coyote factored in with 21 assists and 27 points on the power play. Troy Brouwer, Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green were also contributors to the unit. The late off-season acquisition of Mikhail Grabovski will go a long way in replacing Ribeiro. The former Toronto Maple Leaf managed 10 power-play goals with Toronto in 2010-11, but had a goose egg last season.
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, whom Washington wisely signed to a two-year deal this offseason, make up the top line. Johansson will be the benefactor of having played nearly a half season with the core duo. He had a career-best 46 points in 80 games in 2011-12 and although he was not as productive last season, as he missed time with injuries, he still registered 22 points in 34 games last season.
Grabovski, who had the final four seasons of his contract bought out by the Maple Leafs, slipped to nine goals in 48 games after having posted three 20- goal campaigns in his first four years with Toronto. He will move into Ribeiro’s spot as the top second-line center role between Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer.
Washington GM George McPhee was criticized for trading top prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Erat at the trade deadline. Erat finished the year five goals and 24 points but should still be a factor in the Caps lineup. Brouwer notched 33 points last season in 37 games, the same point total that took him 82-games the year before. Adding Grabovski will allow, when he is healthy, Brooks Laich to slide back down to the third line where the Caps can finally boast some depth. Laich, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, Aaron Volpatti, Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault, will all provide scoring depth as bottom six forwards.
However, reports earlier this week stated that Mathieu Perreault might not make the Washington Capitals despite his one-way contract. Perreault comes with a $1.05 million cap hit and the team needs to clear up some space to make room for Tom Wilson. Washington might attempt to trade Perreault, but if that does not work out, they could still put him in the minors and get some cap relief, even under the terms of the new CBA. It is worth emphasizing though that while Perreault does not appear to be a lock to make the team, he still might.
Capitals Line Combinations: Projected
LW: Marcus Johansson C: NICKLAS BACKSTROM RW: ALEX OVECHKIN
LW: MARTIN ERAT C: Mikhail Grabovski RW: TROY BROUWER
LW: JASON CHIMERA C: BROOKS LAICH RW: ERIC FEHR
LW: AARON VOLPATI C: JAY BEAGLE RW: TOM WILSON/ RW: JOEL WARD