The Washington Capitals’ 2017 training camp was one to remember for a handful of the team’s defensive prospects. After seeing them lose a number of blueliners to the expansion draft and free agency in the offseason, including Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk, general manager Brian MacLellan challenged the Capitals’ younger players already in the system to fill the voids on their main roster.
So, heading into camp, Washington’s young defensive prospects, including the likes of Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs and Jonas Siegenthaler, did everything in their power to fight for one of the open spots on the team.
Two Rookies Make the Cut
Following a lengthy battle and multiple roster cuts along the way, Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney were guaranteed spots on the Washington blue line, and Djoos, who led the Hershey Bears with 58 points in 66 games last season, impressed enough to win a spot as well. Bowey started the season with Hershey but was eventually called up after Matt Niskanen fell victim to injury.
As both have taken the time to adjust to the NHL, they have been improving and fine-tuning their game with the experience, and have pretty much made themselves staples in the Washington lineup since, molding themselves into the team’s top-four.
“They’re playing well,” defenseman Aaron Ness said of Djoos and Bowey. “It’s fun to watch. They’ve both had some good games here and it’s exciting for them, I’m sure. They’re enjoying it, and they’re having some fun.”
Both of them bring different factors and playing styles to the table, and their adjustment from the AHL has been different, as well as their journey to the main roster.
After a year to remember in Hershey in 2016-17, the 23-year-old defenseman was one of Washington’s most highly-anticipated defensive prospects. Though some were concerned that the 6-foot, 169-pound blueliner didn’t have enough size to perform well at the NHL level, he has proven his critics wrong, especially following a strong performance in the preseason, where he has continued to improve his game each day.
“I think it’s been good,” Djoos said. “Since day one in camp, I try to get my game, be a little bit better every day, watch and learn every day, and I feel it’s going in the right direction.”
His father, Par, was a renowned offensive NHL defender, and so far, Djoos has proven to take after him. With his puck-handling ability and vision for the game, Djoos said that he enjoys playing with a more offensive edge.
“I like that,” Djoos said of his offensive ability. “I like to play with the puck, and just trying to use it as much as I can.”
Djoos scored in his NHL debut on a quick shot that beat Pittsburgh Penguins’ netminder Matt Murray and has two goals and three points, as well as 14 shots on goal, in 16 games this season. His shooting percentage of 14 percent is impressive, and he has shown tremendous care with the puck.
As he continues his voyage and development, Djoos said that the game never slows down, and it never gets less difficult – the NHL remains among the hardest leagues to play in, even as time goes on.
“Not easy ever,” Djoos said. “It’s such a good league. Everyone’s so good. Small details every day makes you a better hockey player.”
According to head coach Barry Trotz, the young Swede shares a lot of similarities with his countrymate, Nicklas Backstrom, in the way he acts off the ice: mature beyond his years and intelligent.
“He’s a real quiet person,” Trotz said. “So there’s a lot of similarities to Backy. He doesn’t say a whole lot. When he does, it’s very insightful. He’s a good player.”
Djoos suffered an upper-body injury Nov. 14 against the Nashville Predators and has since been out of the lineup, but he has started to skate a bit again and should be returning to the lineup sooner rather than later.
After Niskanen was put on the long-term injured reserve, the Capitals called on Bowey to help fill the void. However, his debut didn’t go exactly as he had imagined. He was a minus-3 in the Capitals’ 8-2 losing effort to the Philadelphia Flyers early in November. However, since then, he feels his game has gotten a lot better.
“I think, personally, since that game in Philadelphia, I think it’s definitely been up,” Bowey said. “I’ve been improving and working hard every day to get better, and every game I’m feeling more and more comfortable out there and I think it’s really shown in my play.”
Since that game, Bowey seems to have found his stride and has even seen minutes on the top-four. In 16 games so far this season, the 22-year-old has recorded five assists and is a plus-1. While he does feel like he’s gotten sharper as he has gotten more ice time, the 22-year-old does believe that there is still room for improvement.
“I think, obviously, there’s little areas that I can work on, y’know, being more detailed and my shooting… but I think that’s all going to come with learning, and I think so far, it’s been really good and I just gotta keep working.”
A couple of areas where Bowey has seen his game improve is in taking better care of the puck, moving the play up the ice and adding more offense to his game.
“Just my puck management, making better decisions with the puck, breaking the puck out, getting it up to the forward’s hands has been definitely good,” Bowey said. “Since my first game, that’s one thing I’ve wanted to work on, and I’m continuing to work on that.”
As he continues to excel and tailor his game to the NHL, he said that it helps to work and get ice time with a variety of Capitals defencemen, including Brooks Orpik, John Carlson and of late, Chorney.
“Obviously every seven of us are good players, and I think we all can really work off of each other, and there’s obviously the old guys in Brooks Orpik and John Carlson,” Bowey said. “They’re really easy to look up to and they’re making the transition for us young guys pretty good here, and I think we just have to keep it up, keep working as a six-man group and we’ll be fine.”
Despite the fact that he has pretty much secured himself a spot in the Capitals’ lineup, he carries one piece of advice with him: confidence and determination, as well as effort, go a long way.
“Work ethic and every day’s a new day,” Bowey said. “Some days won’t go as planned… and what it really comes down to is how you bounce back from those days, and I think consistency in your play comes a long way, and that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on so far.”
Sammi Silber covers the Capitals beat for The Hockey Writers and is an NHL contributor with Sporting News. She has also contributed to USA TODAY College, Huffington Post, FanSided and the Nation Network. Silber has written four books and recently worked on graphics for the film, The California Golden Seals Movie.