October is quickly approaching and the Washington Capitals have been on the ice at Training Camp for close to a week now. With games-that-matter appearing on the horizon, we wanted to address some of the Capitals’ biggest questions in Training Camp and predict how they may resolve.
If you don’t agree with our two cents, argue with us in the comments. We may even debate you back!
What is the biggest position battle?
Ian Oland: I know this is an unsexy answer, but I think it’s the fourth-line left-wing spot. As we’ve seen since he arrived in DC, Peter Laviolette doesn’t see the Caps’ checking line as a normal fourth line and his third line (which is more “third-best offense”) is usually the one that gets the fewest amount of minutes. Lavy has used the Hagelin-Dowd-Hathaway line exclusively in a defensive shutdown role in the past, sometimes hoping the trio can deliver offense as well. With Hagelin out long term due to a lower-body injury, that open left-wing spot is available long term and its filling is very important.
Who’s picked will really depend on the tenor Laviolette wants to set on that line. Candidates range from prospects Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Joe Snively to veterans like Marcus Johansson and Conor Sheary. Perhaps a Quadruple AAAA guy like Henrik Borgstrom could get a look there, too. If I had to make my guess, I believe Johansson gets the spot. Snively is my wild card. He clearly is NHL-ready and could give that trio more energy and a hounding presence while also producing offensively. Snively would immediately become one of the best skaters on the team.
The other big battle is the open spot beside Trevor van Riemsdyk on the third pairing. After one preseason game, Erik Gustafsson’s aggressiveness to make plays and reckless abandon has me concerned. Lucas Johansen seems like the safer pick to me here. Maybe a wildcard like rookie Vincent Iorio could slot in as well.
Chris Cerullo: I think in terms of most important for team success it’ll be who grabs that second-line center spot and runs with it. After the first handful of line rushes we’ve seen, it appears Lavy as of now has it between Connor McMichael and Dylan Strome with the loser of the battle potentially just shifting to the wing on that line. Could we maybe see Hendrix Lapierre? No, I think that’s still too early. Could Lars Eller factor in? I personally don’t think he should but Brian MacLellan mentioned him being involved in the battle in his camp opening presser.
Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov almost single-handedly carried the offense through the first 40 or so games last season. For example, Ovi tallied 40 assists in a season for the first time in his career since 2010-11 and 26 of those came before the calendar flipped over into 2022. I’m not sure the Caps can lean on that happening again. They need multiple scoring lines.
Which forward needs to step up most during Training Camp?
Ian Oland: I think it’s Lars Eller. The Danish center, who’s in the final year of his contract, had an uneven season last year and now has even greater importance with Nicklas Backstrom out long-term due to hip surgery. Not only does Eller need to bring back his two-way game consistently, but he might need to slide up into the second-line center spot if Dylan Strome or Connor McMichael don’t work out there.
Laviolette started Strome on the wing early in camp, citing it’s a position he could end up playing for the team. Over the offseason, Brian MacLellan called Strome a project, too. I think that’s revealing of how much confidence the team has in Strome’s skating and defense. Fans assume the second-line center spot is shored up, but Capitals brass may not feel the same way.
The Capitals could also deal Eller to make room for someone like Aliaksei Protas if they believe he’s ready to be a full-time player in the NHL. Protas’s size and tantalizing offensive ability, make his addition to the roster a foregone conclusion over the next season or two. It’s just when the team deems him ready and has the spot available to hand over to him.
Chris Cerullo: This for me is Anthony Mantha, who seems like he could be in competition with Connor Brown to replace the injured Tom Wilson on the top line. The Caps dealt a lot for Mantha in 2021 with the hopes that some of his biggest years were still ahead of him. So far…meh with just 31 points in 51 games played. In comparison, Jakub Vrana has tallied 30 points in 37 games for the Detroit Red Wings since the trade.
The big warning sign on Mantha from Wings fans when the deal occurred was that he’s an incredibly streaky player and that has been the exact case with him in DC. No one is asking for 70-plus points or anything but he needs to consistently find the back of the net. I want 30 goals from him this season if I’m the Caps’ brass.
Will Connor McMichael make the team? And if he does, where will he actually play?
Ian Oland: I thought McMichael’s days in DC could be numbered this season when the Capitals re-signed Marcus Johansson over the summer, signaling the team was not going to replenish itself with its youth. Johansson is not a player the team would scratch and Mojo simply played too good down the stretch for the Caps to have him watch from press row. With Carl Hagelin’s lower-body injury, there’s a genuine open spot on the team’s depth chart at left wing, but for McMichael, that’s a position he’s worse at than center.
In the end, I think McMichael is sent to Hershey so he can fully develop at center. Laviolette does not seem to trust CM24 and is not willing to give him a big role on the team. Because Connor’s a player that does not have to be put on waivers to be sent down, the Capitals do not face much danger in optioning him to Hershey and letting him be The Man there. Plus, putting players like Jonsson-Fjallby and Snively on waivers might be too much for the team to stomach. Despite Connor’s numbers and clear ability at the NHL level, I don’t think he makes the team.
Chris Cerullo: I think he makes the team relatively easily. Would that be the case though if there weren’t three veteran regulars out with long-term injuries? Different question and I’d probably hem and haw about it for a bit. I think the Caps will carry 14 forwards at least at the start of this season which makes it a bit of a cakewalk for him unless he’s just downright awful in camp/preseason games.
In terms of where he’ll play, he should stick at center given how much better he looked there and the confidence playing his natural position seemingly gave him last season. I think Strome is a very complementary winger for him as well. I put emphasis on “should” though because I’m still not sure how Laviolette feels about him defensively and that’s probably going to be the deciding factor. He is helped by the fact that Strome isn’t exactly a stalwart on that side of the puck either.
Who will end up being the first-line right wing Opening Night?
Ian Oland: It has to be Connor Brown, right? Brown is like a Tom Wilson clone, just smaller and less physically imposing. I think the Caps put Brown there for a while, but eventually, flip him around and promote someone like Conor Sheary up there. Lavy loves his Smol King.
Chris Cerullo: I think Connor Brown will end up on top there. Mantha being on the second line adds some size to that trio and I think it spreads the wealth offensively better than if the Caps had him with Ovi and Kuzy.
Brown’s game also just really fits with those two Russians. He’s not afraid to go digging for loose pucks and he’s a multi-20-goal scorer himself so there isn’t a giant skill drop-off. He’s played with guys like McDavid, Matthews, Tkachuk, Norris, Nylander, etc. his whole career so he likely won’t be affected by the pressure of the assignment.
Do you think Alex Ovechkin will score a goal this preseason?
Ian Oland: I’m a big no. The Elton John fan is a Tiny Dancer in the preseason, but when the lights turn on in rego, he’s a bull in a China shop.
Chris Cerullo: He hasn’t in the past two preseasons so he’s clearly due. I’m gonna go with yes and it’ll come on a power play.
Does Hendrix Lapierre have a chance to make the team out of Training Camp again?
Ian Oland: No chance. But how quickly he develops in Hershey this season could be one of the biggest stories heading into 2022-23. A lot of spots could open up next season.
Chris Cerullo: No. The Caps added even more depth than they had when he did the impossible at last year’s Training Camp. I think he’ll get a handful of preseason games to try and make the same impression but he’ll ultimately start the season in Hershey where he’ll get top-six minutes and a ton of power play time. I wasn’t too big a fan of his QMJHL season last year and him getting cut from the Canadian World Juniors team wasn’t fun either. He was hopefully just done with the junior level mentally and in need of a new test which the AHL will provide in spades.
Will backup goaltender end up being a position battle?
Ian Oland: I actually thought Zach Fucale would have a real shot to be the team’s backup this season — he’s earned that opportunity with his play — but Charlie Lindgren seems to have the spot locked down without even playing in the preseason yet.
Chris Cerullo: Unless Charlie Lindgren has an absolutely horrific preseason, no. They signed him to a three-year deal worth over $1 million per year. That tells me that he’s going to get every chance in the world to back up that sort of faith from the front office.
Fucale is a great number three though and I imagine he’ll be looking for a solidified NHL job in free agency next summer if he has another good year with Hershey.
Will the John Carlson-Martin Fehervary pairing be kept together after last year’s end-of-season troubles?
Ian Oland: Yes. But I think if a surprise player like Vincent Iorio makes the team, you could see some shuffling where Fehervary skates with him on the third pair. Fehervary is The Future on defense for the Capitals and his pairing with Carlson will continue. At some point, I think he could be a Norris Trophy candidate. Fehervary’s skating ability allows him to play big minutes and I think he will have a great year for the entire year this season.
Chris Cerullo: Yes. I don’t think they’ll ever touch the Dmitry Orlov-Nick Jensen pairing so the only other scenario would be TVR and Fehervary switching places. I don’t think that option will happen but I’m a huge TVR fan and think he’d be up for the assignment.
Overall, the Caps need a lot of questions answered on defense this season. As of right now, only John Carlson and Lucas Johansen currently have contracts for 2023-24.
We need another ‘We’re Not Going To Be Suck This Year’ mantra. If Ovi’s asked, what do you think he comes up with for this season?
Ian Oland: “I’m not NOT going to scoar moar goals this year.”
Chris Cerullo: “We’re very old but like fine wine…also please stop asking me about Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky.”
Which young player do you think will end up in Hershey despite being ready and deserving?
Ian Oland: Joe Snively. I hope I’m wrong. When you ask around, many believe he’s one of the top skaters in the organization. His cameo in the NHL last year was impressive. Make room for this guy.
Chris Cerullo: Aliaksei Protas. I’m a huge, huge fan of the huge, huge Belorussian forward. He should take another step in the AHL this year and be a leader for the Bears scoring-wise.
Who will be the biggest surprise of camp?
Ian Oland: I think it will be Dylan Strome, but perhaps not for the reasons people think. I think the team sees his defense and skating as a potential liability and he may not have as solid a grasp on the second-line center spot as we all think. It’s unlikely he ends up anywhere else but there, but still, I think that could end up being the surprise of camp. I hope I’m wrong and he develops into the 2C of the future.
Chris Cerullo: I don’t think he has any shot at making the NHL roster, but I believe people will be surprised by how good Vincent Iorio looks in the preseason. He was clearly a step above at Development Camp in July and he has the size and skating ability to be a great pro. His game against the Sabres on Sunday was downright impressive. Going to be a huge year for him development-wise.
Peter Laviolette is a lame-duck coach headed into the season. Is he on the hot seat?
Ian Oland: No. Or said in Russian: lavioNYET. He stays all year. There is no warmness on that booty.
My personal opinion is that I think Lavy makes the team somewhat worse at times with how he handles in-game strategy and lines. He’s also one of the more boring and unrevealing coaches in the NHL today (which may be considered an asset). I find Laviolette closer in effectiveness to a Dale Hunter or Barry Trotz than a Bruce Boudreau or Todd Reirden. But in the eyes of Caps brass, he seems to be doing a great job. We don’t know what goes on In The Room, but how he handles that is perhaps his greatest strength. And it’s just something, we as fans will never understand.
Chris Cerullo: He absolutely should be. Is he actually? Unless there’s some sort of brutal Boudreau-like long losing streak somewhere, I doubt it. They’re going to give him this full season and then evaluate afterward.
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