Where the Capitals’ only two position battles stand
ARLINGTON, Va. It’s a luxury to return so much of a core group from a winning season, particularly a Stanley Cup-winning season.
The Washington Capitals begin their Cup defense in October, and Jay Beagle and Philipp Grubauer will be the two most notable faces from last year’s team not to join them. Their departures, one by free agency and the other by trade, correspond with the team’s two position battles in training camp and preseason this month: fourth-line center and back-up goalie.
The Capitals’ lone free agency signing, Nic Dowd, is competing with Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson for the center spot. Dowd scored three goals in 40 games for the Vancouver Canucks after being traded there mid-season from the Los Angeles Kings.
Dowd knows exactly what factors will be important in taking over Beagle’s place.
“Faceoffs are gonna be crucial. Penalty kills are gonna be crucial,” Dowd said. “I think we have so many elite players on this team, it’s gonna be important for everyone to do their role. I think with that role, the important things that need to stick out are what I mentioned, but it’s gonna be nice, because I believe with how they play it’s gonna allow for creativity in our offense.”
Boyd only accumulated eight games at the NHL level last year, so he enters 2018-19 as a rookie. He was also called on to play in the Capitals’ triumphant Game 6 against Pittsburgh in the second round of the playoffs while the team was particularly thin at forward.
Stephenson is the wild card in the battle, because the Capitals have used him as both a winger and a center. He scored 18 points in 67 regular season games and added seven more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, cementing himself as one of the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards wherever they line him up.
The competition means Boyd does not assume he has made the 23-man roster yet.
“I played with Chandler for a couple years in Hershey so I know he’s well aware of being a centerman,” Boyd said. “It’s just added motivation and added not stress, but it’s just another person that you’re out there competing with. There’s a group of guys that all want that spot.”
On the other hand, general manager Brian MacLellan said he “enjoys” Stephenson more at wing, and feels people are split 50-50 on where he’s better suited.
To that point, new coach Todd Reirden said it’s still too early to make judgments on how the fourth line will look.
“The players are going to decide it,” Reirden said. “We’re going to put them in situations where they’re gonna have competitions, and at the end of the day the players will make the decision for me. They’re all gonna be given ample opportunity to do their thing and show us what they can do.”
Unlike fourth-line center, the backup goalie race is more or less decided. Pheonix Copley, the No. 3 goalie in the organization last year, is being asked to make the jump to No. 2. Copley made 21 saves in 32 minutes of the Capitals’ preseason opener at Boston Sunday.
“He knows the challenge that’s in front of him and I thought he was real solid yesterday,” Reirden said. “A number of big saves early on. We were a little bit slow to get going in the game, so we needed him in the beginning of the game. He was there for us and I thought he really sent the message in game one that he’s prepared for that opportunity.”
Copley’s main competitor for the job was Russian 21-year-old Ilya Samsonov, the Capitals’ first-round draft pick in 2015. Samsonov has professional experience from the KHL, but the consensus seems to be that he needs some more time.
Copley has only started two games at the NHL level, both for St. Louis, and none since January 2017. For context, Grubauer made 28 regular-season starts as the Capitals’ No. 2 last year.
But the Capitals have long believed in Copley. They signed him undrafted out of Michigan Tech, and although they dealt him in the 2015 trade that brought T.J. Oshie to Washington, they got St. Louis to send Copley back in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade less than 20 months later.
“I was really familiar with the staff and the players here that I played with before while I was in this organization,” Copley said. “The Blues organization was good and treated me well, but this organization has had a lot of faith in me and I feel that that kind of speaks for itself.”
Copley thinks Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray understands his game really well. He was happy to have the extra time to work with Murray last spring, when the Capitals called Copley up from Hershey as a “black ace” and emergency goalie during the playoffs.
Starting goalie Braden Holtby certainly has noticed Copley.
“With Pheonix, I’m sure if anyone watched through the playoffs last year or anything, his work ethic is phenomenal and I think that’s something very important to what we try and preach with our goalie department,” Holtby said. “He’s big, he’s strong, patient. He’s going to fit into the mold of what we’re trying to do really well.”