Coming off their first post-lockout playoff appearance, the Washington Capitals find themselves firmly out of the rebuilding process and looking to defend their Southeast Division title. As a result, the opportunities for the new wave of prospects to earn their way onto the Verizon Center ice during this training camp is much more limited than over the past several seasons. While a big splash from a rookie prospect would add additional depth, at this point the Caps are likely through with providing on-the-job training at the NHL level. For a prospect to make the jump now, the Caps will expect immediate production or will hand out tickets to Hershey coming out of camp.
Gone is franchise stalwart Olaf Kolzig, to be replaced in the near term by free-agent signee Jose Theodore, who is expected to anchor the Capital net into the next decade. Backing up Theodore will be career No. 2 Brent Johnson. His eventual challengers for ice time include 21-year-old Daren Machesney. Coming off a solid debut season with Hershey in 2007-08, which saw him post a 2.55 goals-against and .916 save percentage, the youngster will be provided an opportunity to further refine his game before a likely ticket back to Hershey this year.
Machesney will need to continue his upward arc since being drafted by the Caps in the fifth round of 2006 to hold off the pair of hard-charging youngsters expected to take a turn in the rookie camp in European imports Michal Neuvirth and Semen Varlamov. Both teenagers have made waves on the international scene, and should get a quick look in camp before continuing their internships abroad. In the case of all three, this training camp should best be viewed as an extremely early preview of what will likely be a robust goaltender competition in two or three years’ time.
The continued development of youngsters Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom and addition of veteran anchors up front over the past 16 months has solidified the most talented top-six group of forwards in Washington since their Cup run of a decade ago. As a result, the open spots up top which remain in contention heading into training camp are complementary to the big guns.
If there is one youngster up front who can be said to be on the hot seat, it is clearly 23-year-old wing Eric Fehr, the 18th overall selection from the 2003 Entry Draft. Not surprisingly, it has taken Fehr the better part of five years to grow into his lanky 6’4 frame, and the time has come for the burgeoning power winger to earn and hold onto a starting spot with Washington. With little left to learn at the AHL level, Fehr has the opportunity to provide a sorely-needed physical presence off the edge for a team suffused with more finesse than brawn. A great showing at training camp would likely be a harbinger of things to come.
Apart from Fehr, the opportunities for any additional Cap prospects to crack the forward group will likely be few and far between, with most of the longer-term prospects skating at rookie camp instead. Wings Andrew Gordon and Chris Bourque, both 22 and coming off solid seasons with Hershey, should provide competition for the final spots on the Capital bench. Further seasoning in the AHL is likely on the near-horizon for both.
Among those expected to make an impression at rookie camp, center Mathieu Perrault and wing Francois Bouchard are each coming off strong junior performances in 2007-08, and should be looking to build towards a real opportunity by September of 2010. Of particular interest to long-time Cap fans will be the brief debut stateside of Swedish pivot Anton Gustafsson. Washington traded up to tab the son of former Cap Bengt Gustafsson with the 21st overall pick in this year’s Entry Draft, although a legitimate shot at a full-time job in the NHL is still a few years away.
All eyes in training camp this year will be focused directly on the fifth overall selection from the 2007 Entry Draft, Karl Alzner. Expected by many to step right from the WHL and into a role with the Caps in the span of several months, Alzner is viewed by many throughout hockey as one of the top three blueline prospects in the NHL and a legitimate candidate for a Calder Trophy nomination. Considered mature beyond his years on ice, Alzner was instrumental in Canada’s gold-medal performance at this past winter’s World Juniors, captaining the squad and providing the type of stability and leadership that also earned him WHL MVP and Top Defenseman honors. Alzner has every opportunity to do for the defensive zone what recent rookie phenoms Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom managed up front.
While Alzner will likely cast a lengthy shadow across all prospects over the next few weeks, Finnish defenseman Sami Lepisto is the next most likely rookie rearguard to earn ice time with the Caps in 2008. Following a lengthy career with Jokerit Helsinki, Lepisto made the jump across the pond in 2007-08 as a 22-year-old, and turned in a strong AHL campaign with Hershey. A confident player on the puck, the offensive-minded defenseman will be given every opportunity to earn his way out of the AHL in training camp. Longer-term, prospects John Carlson and Josh Godfrey should get a look in rookie camp, with the younger Carlson a serious darkhorse candidate for a roster spot in October 2009.
Capitals pre-season schedule
Wed September 24th at Carolina
Thu September 25th vs. Carolina
Sat September 27th at Boston
Mon September 29th at New Jersey
Wed October 1st at Philadelphia
Fri October 3rd vs. Philadelphia
Sun October 5th vs. Boston