Capitals Questions 5: What Did We Learn From Preseason?

This is the fifth in a series of articles leading up to the regular season detailing the most pressing questions facing the Washington Capitals heading into the 2015-16 campaign.

Click here to see Question 1 (What Happens to Laich and Chimera?)

Click here to see Question 2 (Will the Caps Miss Mike Green?)

Click here to see Question 3 (Can Any Prospects Crack the Lineup?)

Click here to see Question 4 (Has the Culture Been Changed for Good?)

One thing you can say for sure after the Washington Capitals’ 6-2 dismantling of the New York Islanders in Sunday’s preseason finale is that they appear to be ready for the regular season. Admittedly playing against an Isles JV squad that was missing preseason Hart Trophy-candidate John Tavares and their top four defensemen, the Caps netted three goals in the game’s first seven minutes, with all three coming in a span of less 2-1/2 minutes.

Need more evidence? Washington concluded the preseason as one of three unbeaten tams in the NHL, going 5-0-2. Detroit at 6-0-2 and Anaheim at 5-0-1 were the only other teams not to suffer a setback. Ironically, several pundits have picked Washington and Anaheim as leading contenders to meet in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Caps finally appeared to get their power play in gear against the Islanders as well, going 3-for-4 on the night, including a pair of one-timer lasers by Alex Ovechkin from his favorite spot. Ovechkin, who split a pair of Hurricanes’ d-men to score a highlight-reel goal earlier in the week and tied Friday’s game with Boston in the final three minutes, also thumped a New York defenseman behind the net just seconds after linemate T.J. Oshie had been hammered into the boards. He finished the preseason with five goals in five games. And at the other end of the ice, starting netminder Braden Holtby played his first full game of the preseason, stopping 22 of 24 shots to earn the victory.

Other than a few strange numbers like 4, 53 and 87 skating around wearing red sweaters, If you didn’t check the calendar and just watched a video replay of Sunday’s game you might say that the Caps were in mid-season form. While that may be a bit of a stretch, head coach Barry Trotz and the players seem pleased with where the team is at it prepares to host New Jersey in its season opener Saturday.

“There was good competition {in camp},” Trotz said, “and Tuesday we’ll see what we’ve got and start all over again.”

Goaltender Braden Holtby added: “There was a lot of rest early as there usually is, but I think that we recognized what we needed to get sharper at, and that’s what we focused on in practice – not only individually but as a group. There are still things that we will have to clean up going into the regular season, but that’s going to be through the whole year. There are always going to be those things. We’re comfortable where we’re at right now, but in saying that we have to get prepared for game one and we’ve got the week to do that.”

And defenseman John Carlson chimed in: “There’s always things to work on, always things to do better. It’s just about getting yourself as prepared as possible. Obviously you don’t want to go out there and have a stinker of a preseason. You just want to make sure that you are feeling the best you can, that you are getting prepared the best you can and for some guys – the new guys – it’s important for them. We’ve got much of the same team from last year, but there’s stuff that we’re going to be adding that’s going to be different from last year. We’ve put a big emphasis on practices in the past year. You want to build on that, and that starts in the preseason. We all came into camp prepared and ready to go. Hopefully that translates into a good start.”

So the consensus appears to be that the team is happy with where it is at the moment, but that there are always areas that can be improved. It seems that the Trotz influence and mentality continues to infiltrate the locker room, and that’s a good thing. But through seven preseason games what have we learned about this year’s edition of the Washington Capitals? Things are a little more clear after Monday’s cuts.

The Forward Combinations Won’t be the Ones We All Talked About

Kuznetsov and Ovechkin worked well together on the top line in preseason. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)
Kuznetsov and Ovechkin worked well together on the top line in preseason. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

According to most reports, first-line center Nicklas Backstrom will not be ready to play following offseason hip surgery until about the fifth game of the season. In his absence highly skilled center Evgeny Kuznetsov has been elevated to the top line with superstar Ovechkin and newcomer T.J. Oshie. Those three have developed impressive chemistry, with Kuznetsov dishing off a slick no-look backhand pass to set up Ovechkin’s late game-tying goal vs. Boston before roofing a backhand shootout clincher. He followed that up with a goal and three assists vs. the Islanders, including a nifty give-and-go with Oshie for the game’s first tally.

“He’s just continuing to grow,” Trotz said of Kuznetsov. “It’s a little bit of confidence that grows with understanding the league. He’s got a couple of pretty good linemates right now who can do some things. He’s just so good with the puck. His skating is elite. His vision and his skills are elite. He’s just going to get better and better.“

Oshie had a Sportscenter highlight goal against Montreal earlier in preseason and had a hand in winning a couple of shootouts before burying Kuznetsov’s pass Sunday and finishing that game with a goal and two assists.

“We talk a lot together, especially on the ice in the offensive zone,” Ovechkin said of his growing chemistry with Oshie. “Still we have to work a lot more together, but I’m happy how we are playing right now.”

With the top line cemented for the beginning of the season – and possibly longer if the trio continues to produce as it did late in preseason – additional changes from what was expected will filter down the lineup. Most people believed the Caps would open with a second line featuring Kuznetsov centering skilled second-year player Andre Burakovsky and newly acquired veteran Justin Williams. Instead Burakovsky has moved over to center, a position at which Trotz figured he’d eventually enjoy a long NHL career, with speedy veteran Marcus Johansson sliding into the vacated wing slot.

That brings us to the bottom six. Since the end of last season the organization has made it clear that after two years of thumping and throwing knuckles on the fourth line, former first-round draft pick Tom Wilson’s future was among the top nine forwards, and there has been little question that he would open the year on the third line. Nothing has changed there.

Wilson will hold down one wing spot on the third line entering the season despite some skepticism as to whether he has developed his hands and skill enough to be a top-nine NHL contributor. In preseason he appeared up to the challenge, sniping a high-slot wrister for a goal in an early game before adding three helpers to finish with four points in four appearances. His soft backhand set-up of Jay Beagle’s pretty wrist-shot goal against the Isles showed touch and vision many didn’t realize he possessed.

Trotz has spoken several times about how pleased he was with Jason Chimera’s effort late last year and in the postseason and that how at age 35 Chimera still has the legs of a much younger player. Chimera even saw some time on Washington’s second power-play unit in preseason and did not look out of place. A solid two-way player who does have a 20-goal season to his credit, Chimera also figures to see a lot of time on the penalty kill and could open as the left wing on the third line

The praise hasn’t been quite as high for longtime Cap veteran Brooks Laich, who appears to be heading for a spot on the fourth line or as a scratch after being a frontrunner to land on the third line early in the summer. In fact, some suggested that Laich could have been waived in hopes that he and his $4.5 million salary would not be claimed (or maybe that there would be a taker to ease the cap situation) in a similar move to the one made recently by Chicago with Bryan Bickel.

Jay Beagle, who had a career-best 10 goals last season, seems to be destined to open the year as the third-line center. Trotz also has stated time and again how much he enjoys coaching Beagle, who undoubtedly is Trotz’ type of player – a great faceoff guy, who is defensively responsible and who has enough creativity to contribute at both ends of the ice.

After notching a goal and an assist right off the bat in preseason, Derek Roy appeared to be making the most of his professional tryout with the Caps and seemed to be a good bet to start the season as the third-line center. But his play tailed off a bit later in camp and Washington’s tenuous salary cap situation – they would have slightly more than a $1 million left (Roy’s salary a year ago) once they made a decision about who would be the backup goalie – probably pushed the Caps in a different direction as Roy was released early Monday.

“That’s a joint {decision},” Trotz said after Sunday’s game. “We want to be honest. We want to know where we are as a team and also want to have the right role for Derek. That’s really important for us and also for Derek. We’ve talked about that organizationally.”

Roy’s chances were clouded not only by cap constraints, but also by the surprisingly impressive play of 26-year-old former Columbus Blue Jacket Sean Collins and the continued improvement of tough-guy Liam O’Brien, who made the Caps’ NHL roster out of training camp a year ago as an undrafted free agent. Collins has played 19 career NHL games, and O’Brien appeared in 14 contests for Washington a year ago, recording a goal and an assist and a plus-4 rating.

“Both have been competitive, tough and hard on pucks,” Trotz said of O’Brien and Collins. “They killed some penalties. They both were good. I’m really happy with where Liam’s come from. He was a really good story last year, but with his skating and his ability to play the game at a quicker level, he’s done a lot of good work.

“Sean came in here without us knowing much about him, and he’s not going to wow you as a sexy player or anything, but he’s going to impress you with his consistency. He does a lot of those detail things that we know Joel Ward did here for so many years and you probably didn’t notice a lot until you really started watching him. I’m real happy with Sean’s camp. He was a little bit of a surprise for me.”

Michael Latta, who had six assists and 69 PIMs in 53 games with the Caps last season, has the fourth-line center job wrapped up. Two wingers and the team’s extra forward will be chosen from the group that includes Laich, Collins, Chimera (if he isn’t on the third line) and rookie prospect Stanislav Galiev, who was a bit of a surprise in making the team out of camp.

As of yesterday it looked as though Laich, O’Brien and Collins would stick, but after today’s moves you can add Galiev into the mix as he has landed on the opening-night roster. O’Brien is still just 21 and will continue to benefit developmentally from more playing time in Hershey. Galiev, who made his NHL debut with the Caps late last season after a breakout offensive year in Hershey and netted his first career goal in the final regular-season game a year ago, recorded 25-20-45 in 67 games for Hersey last season and ranked among AHL leaders in power-play goals and points.

Trotz has mentioned the possibility of icing two types of third lines this year – one that is more offensive-minded and another that is more defense-oriented – depending on the opponent. Keeping Galiev in the fold provides him with that option. It would make sense for Galiev to see the ice a few times early in the season, perhaps at Laich’s expense, to see where he is and determine if his is ready for full-time NHL duty. If he’s not deemed ready he probably would be sent back to Hershey in favor of a player like O’Brien.

The Defense is Set – As Long as Orpik is Healthy

Orpik may not be a lock to be ready to play on opening night. (Tom Turk/THW)
Orpik may not be a lock to be ready to play on opening night. (Tom Turk/THW)

Nothing has changed when it comes to the Capitals’ defensive lineup, except that Taylor Chorney, a free-agent pickup from Pittsburgh, is locked in as the seventh defenseman after a strong challenge from Aaron Ness. The only possible question mark is the opening-night pairings if Brooks Orpik is not ready to play following off-season wrist surgery. Orpik has been planning to be ready for the opener all along, but admitted that he wasn’t able to shoot or receive hard passes until maybe 10 days ago, so it’s not a 100 percent guarantee that he will be able to play Saturday.

A healthy Orpik would take his place alongside emerging superstar John Carlson again in a reunion of what was the team’s top tandem from last season, with steady veteran Karl Alzner again skating next to Matt Niskanen. The third duo in that scenario likely would be Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, with Chorney as the extra. Schmidt played 39 games with the Caps a year ago, notching a goal and three assists and compiling some impressive possession numbers. Orlov, once one of the league’s top young defensive prospects, is coming back after missing all of last year following complications from a wrist injury.

“He’s come around and gotten better every game,” Trotz said of Orlov. “He’s getting to be a lot more like the player we all know, and that’s good for us.”

If Orpik is not ready for the opener, it is possible that Alzner would be reunited with his longtime partner Carlson, with Chorney skating alongside former Penguins teammate Niskanen. Another, perhaps more likely scenario, would have last year’s Alzner-Niskanen pairing remaining intact with Chorney filling in for Orpik alongside Carlson. The 28-year-old Chorney has 68 games of NHL experience with Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Edmonton.

And in the Goal?

Grubauer Hershey Bears
Grubauer finally gets his NHL shot after posting impressive AHL numbers. (M. Richter-Capitals Outsider)

Coming off a career year in which he finished fourth in the Vezina Trophy voting and appeared in 73 games, Braden Holtby is the Caps’ starter for now and the future. After a season in which he posted 41 wins, a 2.22 GAA and a .923 save percentage and then followed that by posting lights-out numbers in 13 playoff appearances, it’s hard to argue with that logic.

The only question that remained as of Sunday night was who would back up Holtby. Would it be veteran Justin Peters, who was inconsistent early last season and never really got much of a chance after December, or up-and-coming prospect Philipp Grubauer, who defeated Anaheim in his only regular-season start last year and then filled in for a sick Holtby to earn a playoff victory against the Islanders? He was great in both of those outings, and it was clear that the coaching staff had more confidence in him than Peters last season.

Grubauer appeared in 49 contests for Hershey last year, earning 27 wins and posting a strong 2.30 GAA and .921 save percentage. Peters appeared in 12 NHL games a year ago, going 3-6-1 with a 3.25 GAA and .881 save percentage.

Trotz praised both goalies during camp this year, and Peters actually had better numbers, appearing in three games and compiling a miniscule 0.71 GAA and .961 save percentage. In three appearances Grubauer’s numbers were very solid at 2.22 and .919. The tricky part for Washington was that at age 23 Grubauer has shown every indication that he will develop into a solid NHL goaltender with potential to be a full-time starter. Peters is 29 and has never developed into anything other than a backup at the NHL level. The likely thinking in waiving Peters Monday was that he would be easier to pass through waivers than Grubauer, and Washington already has veteran Dan Ellis at the AHL level in case someone decides to grab Peters.

So, what is the bottom line? The Caps are likely to ice the lineup below when they open against New Jersey Saturday. It is entirely possible that Laich could find himself on the outside looking in against the Devils considering that it would be odd to have a young player like Galiev make the team out of camp and then start the year as a healthy scratch.







Extra: Laich