“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 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
Projection: 14 games, 1-2-3, even
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 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
Projection: 8 games, 1-2-3, plus-1
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
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
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.