Hockey is back!
What are the biggest questions for the Washington Capitals as they complete training camp?
Will any new faces or old faces be invited to camp? How will the Capitals deal with having two legit starting goaltenders? Will Adam Oates tinker with the positions of any returning players in an attempt to improve the team? And, most importantly, will the Capitals be able to learn Oates' system in such a short time frame?
Here are the Washington Capitals' five biggest questions as they enter training camp for the 2013 season.
Tom Wilson at the 2012 NHL draft
An organization's top prospects often get invited to training camp. But usually, this is simply to get acquainted with the coaches, players and system they may soon be a part of in the not-too-distant future. It also helps the prospects' growth to play hockey at the highest level, even if just at practice.
But sometimes, circumstances conspire against a team, and it must invite a prospect to training camp with the distinct possibility of them making the roster.
For the Washington Capitals, the 2013 training camp presents that sort of circumstance. Center Nicklas Backstrom injured his neck while playing in the KHL and is visiting a specialist in Michigan. And Brooks Laich is "not quite ready to go" in time for the new season, after injuring his groin while playing in Switzerland.
So, to deal with this shortage of forwards, 2012 first-round draft pick Tom Wilson will attend Capitals training camp. Now, Wilson's progress will be interesting to watch at camp, because his mere invitation is a significant change from only a few days ago, when general manager George McPhee told The Washington Post "there’s no sense bringing in the junior players and that sort of thing, because they wouldn’t be able to make our team right now anyway.”
Wilson was not the only significant prospect invited to training camp. Cameron Schilling, the eighth-best prospect in the Capitals system, according to Hockey Propsectus, also came to camp. But Schilling was assigned to the Hershey Bears on January 15.
And despite having played 60 games in the NHL during the 2011-12 season, Dmitry Orlov is still considered a prospect by some. Hockey's Future ranks him fourth among the Capitals' top 20 prospects. But George McPhee told Katie Carrera of The Washington Post on Jan. 9 that Orlov will probably miss the start of the season:
He’s been out for a while, but starting to work out again and feeling better, so it could be a little bit longer. But as soon as he’s ready, he’ll be here. He’s going to have to get his legs under him again because he’s been out six weeks.
So far, the prospects of the Capitals prospects playing in the 2013 NHL season are mixed.
Eric Fehr is happy to be back in Washington playing for the Caps.
The Washington Capitals 2013 training camp is notable for the return of two familiar faces.
After being drafted by the Capitals in the first round of the 2003 NHL draft, Eric Fehr played his first six NHL seasons with the Capitals before joining the division-rival Winnipeg Jets in 2011-12. Winnipeg released the oft-injured forward this summer, and Fehr played for Hämeenlinnan Pallokerho (HPK) in Finland. As a result of some advanced scouting, Fehr was recently signed by the Capitals to a one-year deal worth $600,000, and he has rejoined the team with a new-found confidence.
GM George McPhee explained to Adam Vingan of NBC4 Washington that it "looks like he’s gotten over the surgeries and the rehab and he also was playing really well in Finland, so we thought it’d be a nice addition."
Fehr himself added to those sentiments, also to Adam Vingan:
I definitely had to play hockey during the lockout. That was something that I really wanted to do. I had a tough year last year and I wanted to get back playing, put it behind me. I’m real happy that I went to Finland. I was able to start playing, to start scoring again and get the confidence back up.
And there is another familiar face for the Washington Capitals as the 2013 season gets underway. Tom Poti was invited to training camp and is currently playing with the Hershey Bears as part of a conditioning assignment.
The 35-year-old defender impressed Bears head coach Mark French in his return to pro hockey after being sidelined with injuries for two seasons. French told Ben Raby of WTOP, "I thought he was very efficient, he avoided contact and you can see his overall skill level, so I thought it was a very successful comeback for him."
Tom Poti also felt pleased with his progress, as he explained to Ben Raby:
The last week-and-a-half to two weeks, I've had no pain at all and I've kind of been able to do everything out there that I've wanted to do on the ice. It's just a matter of me getting comfortable out there on the ice again kind of getting the rust off. I think I'd be alright just kind of jumping in. Sometimes it's better, as I've experienced in the past, to just throw yourself into the fire- you learn quicker that way and you kind of get used to things better…This will be a big test for me and I'll be up to the challenge.
The Capitals hope Eric Fehr and Tom Poti reclaim some of their old magic—and then some.
Braden Holtby will be the first of two great goaltending options for the Caps.
Oates explained his reasoning to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post:
Forty-eight games, I think both guys are going to play a lot, and I would say when a guy is playing well, he should play. [Competition between Holtby and Neuvirth is a] great situation to have, a luxury for a coach. I’m not experienced enough to know what’s right when it comes to that.
Oates said, "I would think that the guys expect Holts to be in the net, based on last year for sure." However, Adam Oates has already talked to Michal Neuvirth regarding his expectations for the Czech netminder, as he told Katie Carrera:
I met with Michal the other day, and I said that very point where he’s going to get plenty of chances to play. Your job is to play well. Playing well doesn’t always equal wins. A puck can ricochet off a defenseman’s skate and you lose a game but you played a great game. I’m smart enough to know that.
No matter how Adam Oates decides to answer the goaltending question, one thing is for certain: He will always have a good goalie in net.
Alex Ovechkin has played left wing his entire career.
So, in an attempt to increase his production, head coach Adam Oates has experimented with playing Alex Ovechkin at right wing. On Jan. 14, Ovechkin told Stephen Whyno of The Washington Times that he was excited at the prospect.
"I think it’s going to create more opportunity for me. Oates give me some options and I think about it and I said, ‘Yeah, I want to do it.'"
But one day later, and the experiment was already being reconsidered. Alex Ovechkin collided with Marcus Johansson at training camp on Jan. 15, during a scrimmage in which Ovechkin played each of his shifts at right wing. He told Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington about the incident:
I was on the right side and it was something new for me, different angles. I don’t know whose fault it is, but I didn’t feel good on the ice and my mouth was bleeding. I didn’t know if I lost more teeth or not.
The collision was indicative of Ovechkin's lack of familiarity with the right wing position, as Ovechkin revealed to Chuck Gormley:
To be honest with you, sometimes I just felt lost out there. I don’t know, it’s my first game and I never played right wing a whole game. But I thought our line played well today and we have two or three days to get better. …I’ll talk to Oatesy about it, but it’s getting better and better every day.
The Capitals should hope that Ovechkin continues to get better and better every day; the success of this experiment is the key to the success of the Capitals offense.
Adam Oates has never been a head coach in the NHL. In fact, he has never been a head coach at any level. Oates will have to learn how to relate to his players, a task made more difficult with the compressed training camp and the shortened season.
But more important than how Adam Oates interacts with the players is how well the players learn his system. Oates talked to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post about this dynamic:
It’s a growing period. Hopefully we’re a strong enough team to get through that. I think we are. It’s tough in a short season to get through it, but that’s why you have to work to be good everywhere. We’re pretty healthy, so there’s no reason why we can’t get through this growing process.
Veteran defenseman Mike Green has received the message loud and clear during this process, telling Mark Giannotto of The Washington Post, "I’ve learned how to play the game, but they’ve definitely given the green light for defensemen to get up in the play."
Adam Oates explained his reasoning to Mark Giannotto:
The system really is based on keeping the D from taking as much contact as possible. They’re the lifeblood of the team. I really believe that. They’ve got to obviously help us in our own end, but we’ve got to help forwards score. The way teams back check now and play all three zones, our D are vital to us. The system is really based on them.
Now, the Caps must translate Adam Oates' system into success during this shortened season.