Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- The Reinforcements

“The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes.”
-- Benjamin Disraeli

Last season the Washington Capitals employed 21 forwards, 14 defensemen, and four goaltenders. In the abbreviated 2012-2013 season the numbers were 16/12/3; in 2011-2012 they were 17/10/3.

The point is, no team gets by with a 22- or 23-man roster. There will be occasions – poor play, player transactions, injury – that will necessitate bringing players up from the farm or, in one case, allowing one to play himself into the lineup. Those will be opportunities for which some players either will be ready or not, in which they will be successful or not.

For the Washington Capitals there are eight players that bear watching to see the extent to which they take advantage of the opportunities they earned or that circumstance will present to them, three forwards, four defensemen, and a goaltender.

The Forwards

Andre Burakovsky, the 23rd overall pick in the 2013 entry draft, has played himself onto the opening night roster. Not only that, he might very well start as the second line center against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday. If so, he would be the first rookie to center a scoring line for the Capitals on Opening Night in at least a decade (in his first game with the Capitals in 2007, Nicklas Backstrom played right wing with center Michal Nylander and left wing Brooks Laich).

The early thinking (well, ours) was that there was no rush in putting a 19-year old prospect (he will be 20 in February) on the roster when he could gain experience in a lead role in Hershey. Instead, he played in six of the Caps’ eight preseason games, went 2-2-4, plus-3, averaged more than 16 minutes of ice time, and otherwise acquitted himself very well. If anything, he outplayed the odds-on favorite to win the second line center position, Evgeny Kuznetsov, the rookie who was getting some attention as a potential Calder Trophy finalist as the league’s top rookie.

Until now, his limited (if prolific) offensive numbers in one year of Canadian junior hockey might have been explained away as being the product of playing with number-one-overall-draft-pick-in-waiting Connor McDavid. In his first taste of NHL hockey, though, Burakovsky has given tempting glimpses of his ability to do it on his own. But that was preseason hockey, much of it facing players who will not be with the clubs he played against once the real games begin. That argues for tempering expectations for Burakovsky. The NHL is an 82-game grind for which 19-year olds generally have no frame of reference. There will be bumps in the road and walls to negotiate. For Burakovsky, the opportunity is one of demonstrating, not that he belongs (he has done that for the time being), but in being able to show steady improvement, to be a much more well-developed player in April than he is on Opening Night.

Projection: 66 games, 11-17-28, minus-1


Casey Wellman was not drafted by an NHL team. After two years with the University of Massachusetts, he bounced around the AHL, playing for four teams, and getting the occasional call up to the NHL. In four seasons, Wellman has appeared in a total of 54 games, never more than 15 in any one of them (he appeared in 13 games for the Caps last season). He is, in every sense, a hockey “journeyman.” That is not necessarily a bad thing. In that journey, one learns how to play the game. And when called upon with an opportunity to play at the NHL level, it is important that such a player not be a liability. Wellman, arguably, was not. The Caps had a record of 8-4-1 in games in which Wellman appeared, and he was a “minus” player in only one appearance. He did not get much in the way of ice time (9:22 per game), but he played his role well. One can expect that Wellman will play a similar role this season, keeping sharp playing with the Hershey Bears until circumstance calls him.

Projection: 14 games, 1-2-3, even


Chris Brown came late to the party last season, obtained from the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes as part of the deal that sent disgruntled forward Martin Erat to the desert. Brown was a second round draft pick of the Coyotes in 2009 after spending four years in the U.S. National Team Development Program. Then, to complete his amateur resume, he spent three years at the University of Michigan. He was prepared enough to play 68 games with the Portland Pirates in 2012-2013 and recorded 29 goals, almost as many as he recorded in 125 games with the Wolverines over those three college seasons (34).

In Brown’s case, the issue is finding out just what it is the Caps have. Do they have a a guy they can call upon when needed by the parent club, a dependable fourth-liner who will stick with the club from the get-go (he is still with the team as we write this), or is that 29-goal season in Portland a hint of something more. Brown is going to get his opportunities. Perhaps not to crack the Opening Night starting lineup (they again, he might, with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson still injured), but if he is on the roster to start the season, he would seem likely to be called upon before the Caps dip into the roster at Hershey for replacements. Brown is still young enough (23) to use his opportunities to show the club more of his game and expand his skill set.

Projection: 11 games, 2-1-3, minus-2


The Defensemen

Connor Carrick will be spending his Opening Night of the 2014-2015 season where, perhaps, he should have spent his 2013-2014 Opening Night, with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. That is no knock on Carrick. Only eight 19-year old defensemen dressed for NHL games last season, and Carrick was fifth among them in games played (34), behind Olli Maatta, Seth Jones, Morgan Rielly, and Jacob Trouba. Not bad for a fifth round pick (137th overall) in the 2012 entry draft.

The immediate problem Carrick faces (as do the other defensemen we will discuss) is one of numbers. With the acquisitions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, there is much less room for a prospect to work his way onto the parent roster. If the Caps carry only seven defensemen, one of two vets (John Erskine or Jack Hillen) are facing a squeeze, making it even more difficult for prospects like Carrick to distinguish themselves. However, the Caps did dress 14 defensemen in 2013-2014. There might not be a lot of opportunities to string together games, but is seems safe to say that there will be call-ups from time to time. Carrick’s opportunity, such as it is, is to pile up minutes in Hershey and proceed on the developmental path he seemed to be embarking on last season before he was thrust into a starting role. That will be the best preparation he can have for the unexpected instances when he has to make the trip to Washington.

Projection: 7 games, 0-1-1, minus-1


Steve Oleksy is a nails and vinegar sort of defenseman whose relatively modest skills are made up for with a certain enthusiasm for playing the game. The odd part about his two seasons in the Capitals organization is the number of games he has played. Only four Capital defenseman have played in more games with the big club over the past two seasons than Oleksy (61): Karl Alzner (130), John Carlson (130), Mike Green (105), and John Erskine (67). That might speak to a certain level of turnover with the Caps, but Oleksy has spent a considerable amount of time battling with the big boys. And, his production cannot be sneered at, either. Over those two seasons, only Alzner (23), Carlson (59), and Green (64) have more points among defensemen than the 19 that Oleksy recorded. Oleksy’s opportunity here is to be an “instant” defenseman, one who has the experience not to require much by way of acclimating himself to the speed and pace of the NHL game. He’s seen this before.

Projection: 8 games, 1-2-3, plus-1


Nate Schmidt is one those intriguing guys whose upside one wonders about. If you grow up in Minnesota, attend the University of Minnesota and play for three seasons, the last of which he was named an all-conference defenseman in the WCHA, chances are you’ve had as good an upbringing in the sport as you can get south of Canada. Then, after signing as a free agent with the Capitals, he appeared in 29 games in the 2013-2014 season. While his 2-4-6, plus-4 line might seem a bit modest, there are really two parts to it. There was the 0-0-0, minus-3 scoring line he recorded in his first eight games, and there is the 2-4-6, plus-7 he had in his last 21 games, more than respectable for a rookie and a demonstration of his improvement over the course of the season.

Schmidt benefits from the fact that he is a waiver-exempt player. That makes him a quick-response alternative for the Caps as circumstances dictate, and those 29 games of NHL experience over which he demonstrated he was not out of place makes him poised to be given opportunities over the course of the season.

Projection: 2 games, 0-0-0, even


Patrick Wey is another of these rapid-response players who has strong development pedigree. Two years in the USHL (Waterloo) followed by four seasons at Boston College under Jerry York, perhaps the best hockey coach in NCAA history. Twice a member of NCAA championship teams (2010, 2012), he moved up through the Caps system in the ECHL and AHL to appear in nine games with the big club last season.

His brief stint was another “two-parter,” and not necessarily for the better on its surface (0-3-3, plus-4 in his first four games, 0-0-0, minus-4 in his last five contests), but if anything Wey withstood a trial by fire. Five of the last six games he played were against Los Angeles (twice), Anaheim, San Jose, and Boston. Quite an indoctrination for the rookie. Wey, who has only 45 games of pro experience to date (including the nine with the Caps), will benefit from a full year in Hershey. However, numbers suggest that the possibility remains that he will get the occasional call-up. The opportunities presented to him, rare though they might be, can be taken advantage of with his strong development history.

Projection: 2 games, 0-0-0, even


The Goaltender

Philipp Grubauer is another of what is now a respectable number of prospect goaltenders having come through the Capitals system. Starting with the 2006 draft that number includes: Semyon Varlamov (2006), Michal Neuvirth (2006), Braden Holtby (2008), and Grubauer (2010). Since he was drafted in 2010, Grubauer has climbed steadily up the development ladder: a season in Canadian juniors, a season in the ECHL, and a season split among the ECHL, AHL, and two games with the Caps in 2012-2013. Last season he got a longer look – 17 games. While his win-loss record was modest (and somewhat odd: 6-5-5), his 2.38 goals against average and .925 save percentage suggested that talent was not the issue as much as getting more experience. His brief stay also had two distinct stages last season, his first 10 games in which he was good and generally consistently so (5-2-2, one no-decision, 2.02, .938), and his nine-game finishing stretch in which he faded and was pulled three times (1-3-3, 3.02, .901).

It might be said (ok, we said it)  that Grubauer is the de facto number two goaltender, the one who would jump into the number one spot, or get considerable playing time there, should circumstances dictate (which might be more true in the later stages of the season than in the fall). If he is “a heartbeat away,” in the figurative sense, the opportunity for him in Hershey is to play the number one role consistently and dependably. One never knows when one might be called upon to play that role on a bigger stage.

Projection:  8 games, 3-2-2, 2.49, .917


In the end…

The simple arithmetic of there being roster spots for 21 skaters and two goaltenders, while generally teams might dress 30 skaters (29.5 on average last season, league-wide) and three or more goalies (3.2 last season, league-wide), it is a certainty that there will be opportunities for players we do not see on the roster at the moment to make an impact. We identified only a few here. None are likely to make a large impact, but they are a necessity – to buy time for injuries to heal, to let under-performing players get a chance to collect themselves and find their game, to give hard workers and good soldiers a chance on the bigger stage when their play down on the farm merits it. The opportunities will present themselves. They need to be ready.