The NHL provides that teams may carry 23 players on their rosters. And as we head into the regular season there are going to be players on the edge who might be sent down to juniors (Tom Wilson), to the AHL (Tyson Strachan, Dmitry Orlov, Tomas Kundratek), or…well, we just don’t know (Connor Carrick). Do we have anything to say about these guys? You bet we do…
It would be hard to think that any player this September gave (and still gives) Washington Capitals management more cause to think than Tom Wilson. The 16th overall pick in the 2012 entry draft is, even at just 19 years of age, the mix of size, skill, and edginess that has been lacking on the club since, well, a long time. The problem for the Caps is that Wilson has no AHL option. It is either a roster spot with the parent club or back to Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League, in accordance with an agreement between the NHL and the umbrella Canadian Hockey League organization that provides that a player not having reached his 20th birthday or having played in four years in major junior hockey is not eligible to play in minor professional hockey leagues (AHL or ECHL). Wilson has completed three years with the Plymouth Whalers.
Scoring three goals and participating in two fights in his five preseason games has made things tougher on the Caps’ front office, but complicating the matter is payroll. The Caps have $665,705 in cap room at the moment for 22 roster spots (13 forwards, seven defensemen, two goaltenders; source: capgeek.com). Given who would be expected to be retained by the club, if the Caps choose to keep 13 forwards, one would have to be moved to make room for Wilson on the roster. Even if they were inclined to carry 14 forwards, Wilson’s $1.3 million cap hit would push the club over, making necessary a move in that case.
By the time you read this, the matter might already be settled, since NHL clubs have to get down to rosters of no more than 23 players and under the $64.3 million salary cap by 5:00 p.m. (Eastern) on Monday. Wilson has been getting a long hard look in preseason, and we suspect that the club is trying to clear a roster space to allow him to stay with the club. However, with a lot of other clubs in the position of having to trim their rosters to get to the 23-man limit on Monday, it could prove to be a hard chore. That the Caps have an option with Wilson to return him to juniors means that they could be less inclined to holding what amounts to a “garage sale” sort of deal that does not return value. We think that come Monday, Wilson will be back in Plymouth. But we are not very confident about that forecast.
It was a mild surprise that Tomas Kundratek was placed on waivers on September 25th. If there was a time to do it, though, that was the time. With clubs heading into the last weekend of the preseason and having their own waiver decisions to make, their making a waiver claim on a third-pair defenseman was a chance the Caps were willing to take. It worked. Kundratek cleared waivers.
That might not be the end of it, though. Kundratek was 1-6-7 in 25 games last season for the Caps before suffering a leg injury in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 14th that ended his season. He certainly has a salary cap-friendly hit of only $550,000, but is in a bit of a logjam with the other right-handed defensemen on the roster (Mike Green, John Carlson, Steve Oleksy, Tyson Strachan.
Although he did surprise somewhat with his offense last season, his possession numbers left a bit to be desired. His 5-on-5 Corsi/on-ice was sixth among eight defensemen playing in at least 20 games for the Caps (only John Erskine and Jeff Schultz were worse), and his Corsi relative (on-ice less off-ice value) was also sixth among the eight defensement. His PDO (sum of team on-ice shooting and save percentages) was second worst among the defensemen (only Jeff Schultz had a lower value). He compiled these numbers while having the highest share of offensive zone starts (52.0 percent) among the defensemen playing in at least 20 games.
Still, he could serve as one of those guys who is on a short list for call-up in the event of injury or poor play.
Projection: 13 games, 1-3-4, minus-3
Much of what we just wrote about Tomas Kundratek also applies to Tyson Strachan. He was placed on waivers on September 28th. At this writing we do not know if he cleared or was claimed. We suspect, though, that he will go unclaimed and follow Kundratek to Hershey for the same reasons.
There are, however, differences in their situations. In Strachan’s case, he is not an especially gifted offensive player (he has one goal in 120 career games). And, he has no history with the Caps, having spent his NHL career in St. Louis and Florida. Last year with the Panthers, his possession numbers were alright (by Florida standards), ranked in the middle of the pack among Panther defensemen in his Corsi numbers at 5-on-5. However, despite 54.2 percent offensive zone starts, his PDO value was second worst among seven Florida defensemen playing in at least 20 games. In fact, only six of 210 defensemen in the league playing in at least 20 games had a lower value at 5-on-5 than his 953.
He is likely to be a fill-in of a different type than Kundratek. Where Kundratek is more of a “skill” based defenseman, Strachan has more of a physical edge. He could be an option in the event a John Erskine goes down (and remember, Erskine has played in more than 55 games only once in seven seasons in Washington). His size (6’3”, 215) and edge (12 fights in 120 NHL games) makes him more suited to that role.
Projection: 12 games, 0-1-1, minus-2
Can’t say we saw this one coming. Two years with the U.S. national development team was enough for the Caps to take a flyer on Connor Carrick in the fifth round of the 2012 entry draft. Last year he skated in Canadian major junior hockey (Plymouth Whalers) and had a respectable 12-32-44, plus-27 scoring line in 68 games, plus 18 points in 15 post-season games. He came to Caps development camp last July and impressed. He was invited to training camp and apparently really impressed. As of this writing he is still on the roster (he played 22-plus minutes in the Caps 4-3 overtime loss to Chicago on Saturday night).
He almost certainly will not make the parent roster this season, but he has played himself into a tough decision for the front office. It is not on the order of the decision the Caps have to make concerning Carrick’s junior teammate Tom Wilson, but they have to ponder whether Carrick would be served better by a return to Plymouth or an assignment to Hershey.
In five preseason games he was 1-4-5, plus-1 (cbssports.com keeps pre-season statistics). His five points put him in a tie for 13th among Eastern Conference skaters and tied for fifth among defensemen. Only 20 players in the league have more pre-season ice time at this writing (he leads the Caps in total ice time). He is getting a long look and doing the most with the opportunity.
Projection: 20 games, 2-4-6, minus-2
Dmitry is something of the lost prospect. In 2011-2012 he was among the rookie defenseman leaders in assists and points, and developed a local reputation as being quite fond of the hip check. Last year his season might have been a victim of the lockout that delayed the start of the season. Without having had the opportunity to start the season in Washington with the Caps, he was skating with the Hershey Bears in a December 6th game at Verizon Center against the Norfolk Admirals when he suffered a concussion, likely the product of a hit he sustained early in the first period.
Orlov played in only 31 games for the Bears and only five for the Capitals last season, stopping his development in its tracks. Instead of growing into a second pair role with the club, he is fighting for a roster spot in pre-season 2013. At the moment he appears to be on the outside looking in, at least in terms of cracking the starting lineup. John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and Steve Oleksy would appear to have the inside on the last three starting spots on defense. Hillen and Oleksy have the added bonus of carrying lower salary cap hits than Orlov ($900,000)
The not-too-subtle hint about Orlov is that he needs to develop a more rounded two-way game. The upside for him is that as a left-handed defenseman he faces less congestion for a spot on the ice than he would if he was right-handed. For the moment Orlov seems to be the odd-man out in the Caps’ blue line plans, but the grind of an 82-game season suggests he will get some time to show he is recovered and back on an upward development path.
Philipp Grubauer’s march through the Capitals development path has been unremarkable by its consistency and steadiness. Drafted in 2010 (fourth round, 112th overall), a year in the Ontario Hockey League (Kingston Frontenacs, a year in the ECHL (South Carolina Stingrays), and last year splitting time between the Reading Royals in the ECHL and the Hershey Bears in the AHL. He even found time for a cup o’ coffee with the Caps last year – two games in which he faced 59 shots in 84 minutes. That works out to 42 shots per 60 minutes. Well, he didn’t lack for work in his short stay.
Grubauer got about a game’s worth of total minutes in the pre-season before being sent back down to Hershey (he stopped 19 of 20 shots in his pre-season debut with the Bears, a 6-1 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton). His 2.57 GAA and .923 save percentage in limited duty seems about where he ought to be, with a full year in Hershey to come as part of his apprenticeship. There is no rush in bringing Grubauer along, and our expectation is that absent injury, he will not see action for the Caps this season.
Last season the Caps dressed 28 skaters and three goaltenders. That means that there very well could be players dressing for the Caps this season in addition to those we covered in our previews. That’s part of what makes each NHL season interesting, to see who gets a chance that you might not have expected when the season started.