While smiles are in high supply at training camp for the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, open jobs are not.
Returning 18 of the 20 players who dressed in their Cup-clinching victory, the Capitals have almost no competition for roster spots going into the regular season. Barring injuries, the front office and coaching staff could pencil in probably 95 percent of the opening night roster before anyone hits the ice.
“Obviously, I know our roster pretty well,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “It’s still going to be competitive on the fourth line. We’re going to try to find a fourth line that we’d like to add a little bit more skill, a little more speed, and what we can do on the penalty kill.”
Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby and the rest of Washington’s championship core remaining intact leaves the likes of Travis Boyd and newcomers Nic Dowd and Sergei Shumakov competing for fourth-line roles. MacLellan figures there will also be a competition between veteran Brooks Orpik and young defensemen Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey for playing time on the third pairing.
That’s a far cry from a year ago when the Capitals lost a handful of key contributors and were looking for someone — anyone — to step up and fill voids. Those voids don’t exist this year given that only fourth-line center Jay Beagle and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer aren’t around.
“You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow because it’s hockey stuff,” Ovechkin said. “It’s hard when your friends and when some of your teammates left, especially when you win the Cup, but there’s a salary cap. ... It’s hard to keep.”
It wasn’t hard this time. The Capitals signed pending free agent defenseman John Carlson before he hit the market and re-signed playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly and deadline pickup Michal Kempny. Their low turnover is similar to what the Pittsburgh Penguins had when they repeated as Cup champions.
Todd Reirden replacing Barry Trotz as coach after four years as his top assistant is the biggest change. Reirden knows the roster as well as anyone and won’t lie to players about opportunities, but he’s trying to set them up to compete for spots that might come open because of injuries.
“It’s a different kind of competition,” Reirden said. “You can’t predict it, but all the players that are in camp, they know that there’s competition. And whether that’s competition for Day One of the season, Day 21 or 121 that there’s a chance for them to be a part of a team that is the defending Stanley Cup champs.”
Dowd saw a chance to win a full-time job with the defending champions and jumped at the opportunity. The 28-year-old who has played for the Kings and Canucks wants to show he can bring everything Beagle did and provide some more offense. He’s trying not to wonder every day in camp about where he stands in making the team.
“I spent my first two to three years of pro hockey going into training camp trying to split the atom and trying to get in the minds of the coaches and, ‘Why am I here, why I am there in the lineup, why am I this group, why am I in that group?’” Dowd said. “A lot of the time it makes no difference where you sit in practices and all that, and it just puts more stress on yourself in worrying about that.”
Most players at Capitals camp don’t have much to worry about because they know where they’ll be in October when the season starts. It’s almost certain Pheonix Copley is Holtby’s backup with prospect Ilya Samsonov in the American Hockey League with Hershey, and neither Bowey nor Djoos will be sent to the minors.
Boyd, who played one playoff game during the Cup run, can’t be sure and knows he’s fighting for a job.
“I didn’t want to walk in here and think that I’m on the team,” Boyd said. “I don’t think I am. I definitely think that obviously there’s some guys here that are good players too, trying to gain ahold of I guess the one or two spots that are open.”