Top 5 Washington Capitals Training Camp Battles to Watch in 2014
Any time a head coach is hired in the National Hockey League, it's inevitable that there will be jobs up for grabs as the incoming bench boss attempts to leave his mark on his new team.
When the Washington Capitals begin training camp later this month, Barry Trotz will begin the first on-ice session with an idea of what he believes his lineup should look like, but that could change at camp.
According to Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post, the former Nashville Predators coach admitted as much following the team's development camp. From the sound of things, little is set in stone for the Caps.
Heading into Washington's first official practice under Trotz, here's a look at the most intriguing battles for lineup spots in preparation for the 2014-15 NHL campaign.
5. Philipp Grubauer vs. the Field
Since Washington inked Justin Peters in July, it's been widely assumed that Washington would rely on a tandem consisting of the former Carolina backup and incumbent starter Braden Holtby.
However, it was only a few months ago that Philipp Grubauer received 14 starts between December 2013 and January 2014. At one point, Adam Oates relied on him as the team's No. 1 stopper.
So, even with Holtby and Peters both on one-way deals, if the young German were to show up at camp and the preseason playing markedly better than the others, it'd be tough for Mitch Korn—the team's new goaltending coach—to ignore Grubauer's talent simply due to a slight contractual inconvenience.
Korn's one of the most respected goaltending gurus in the game, and as we saw during his time working with Tomas Vokoun, Pekka Rinne and even Dominik Hasek, he can get the most out of his charges.
If he believes that Grubauer gives the Caps the best chance to win in the present, don't count the 22-year-old out.
4. The Fight for No. 6
With Mike Green, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, John Carlson and Karl Alzner in the mix, the first five spots on the blue line are accounted for.
Who will join them as the No. 6?
Given that Dmitry Orlov's is less than six months removed from signing a two-year extension worth $4 million, he's got to be the favorite. With that said, John Erskine or Jack Hillen could prove to fit the more defensive style Trotz employs.
With elusive speed, hands and confidence with and without the puck, Orlov is the flashiest but has proven to be prone to mental lapses. He may require experience to win a starting spot over the long haul.
Erskine's a steady veteran with grit and a no-nonsense mentality, but after missing most of the last three seasons due to both injury and being a healthy scratch, it'd be a stretch to say he's an ideal fit on a team with postseason aspirations.
This brings me to Hillen.
The undersized (5'10", 190 lbs) rearguard isn't going to overpower anyone physically, but he's a solid puck-mover with good hockey sense. Having registered 10 points in 36 games as a Capital, he's certainly in the running.
In the end, it may depend on how the first two pairings shake out. If Orpik drops down, a capable outlet passer like Hillen or Orlov may make sense. Conversely, if Green ends up on the third unit, the more responsible Erskine would be a better fit.
3. Who Will Play Alongside the Stars?
Unless something drastic happens, one has to firmly believe that Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin will begin the 2014-15 season on Washington's No. 1 offensive unit.
They're consistently one of the most productive tandems in the game, and after having watched both finish among the league's top 10 in scoring in 2013-14, Trotz would need a very compelling reason to split them up immediately.
However, while the two stars seem very likely to remain together, Trotz has a variety of options to choose from when selecting the final member of his most explosive offensive trio.
Due to the more conservative style Trotz became known for in Nashville, it'd be pretty surprising to see him slot Marcus Johansson or Evgeny Kuznetsov here, as neither possesses the grit or defensive awareness to compensate for the offensive-minded play of Ovechkin.
As such, Troy Brouwer or even a healthy Brooks Laich would bring physicality and responsible play. Under Trotz, either of them could be perfect a complement to the squad's most elite duo.
In addition, though it may seem premature, Tom Wilson could play his way into the mix, as he could provide the combative net-front presence that best suits the skills of Ovechkin and Backstrom.
2. The Top 4
From the moment Brian MacLellan completed the acquisitions of former Pittsburgh Penguins Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, it became clear that there'd be a bit of a logjam on the back end unless a subsequent move was to come.
So far, despite consistent rumors surrounding Green's future with the Caps, the two-time NHL First Team All-Star remains in D.C., and that means that Washington has five viable options when putting together the defense's first two pairings.
Given Carlson's emergence as one of the league's brightest young defensemen, as well as his chemistry with longtime partner Karl Alzner, the two would be a logical pick to form the top unit.
In that same vein, the familiarity that Orpik and Niskanen have with one another, in addition to the arrival of former Pittsburgh defensive assistant coach Todd Reirden, suggests that they may be lining up together to begin 2014-15.
If this scenario takes place, Green will obviously be relegated to the bottom pairing. Maybe that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
If Green is used less at even strength and played as more of a power-play specialist, it may benefit both the team's defensive structure and Washington's energy when playing with a man advantage.
1. Finding the No. 2 Center
As any Capitals fans will tell you, the second line has featured a revolving door of centers over the last seven seasons, but the team has yet to find a long-term solution to fill the void.
For his part, Trotz told NHL.com's Dan Rosen that there will be an open competition for the job and he's not counting anyone, including 2013 first-rounder Andre Burakovsky, out yet:
In the two-hole I'm really looking at a number of guys. I'm going to put guys in the middle during camp. I'm going to put Marcus Johansson and [Evgeny] Kuznetsov in the middle. Eric Fehr played in the middle last season but I think he's probably going to end up on the wing. Organizationally they added Andre Burakovsky[No. 23 pick in 2013 NHL Draft] and I'd like to see him in the middle.
Johansson, Kuznetsov and Laich seem to be the likeliest candidates to assume the No. 2 pivot role, but given how different the three are as players, the decision will depend on what type of line Trotz envisions the second unit as.
If it's a line that's intended to generate offense to lessen the burden on Ovechkin and Backstrom, the sublimely talented Kuznetsov—or potentially even the fast-rising Burakovsky—would fit better than Laich or Johansson.
But if his goal is to create a top line that does the weight of the scoring, followed by one that plays a more conservative style, Laich's the best option.
Johansson is clearly skilled and mobile enough, but given his tendency to get pushed around when games become more physical, he's destined for time on the wing until he gains the confidence to win battles.
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