Sean Collins played 15 games for the Washington Capitals last season and was a surprise hit, performing like he belonged in the NHL.
When it was time for the playoffs, Collins couldn’t find a place in the lineup… for the Hershey Bears, Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate. That’s a measure of just how flush the franchise was with defensemen a year ago.
There were no significant departures during the offseason, so a logjam was inevitable. The Caps have 11 players fighting for most likely seven but possibly eight spots.
“In the past, depending on your deal, I don’t think there was ever security but maybe a little peace of mind and you feel wanted, but everybody in here has a great deal right now,” defenseman Tyler Sloan said. “There’s a lot of great players on [NHL] contracts. There’s no guarantees for sure. A lot of guys could play here, and maybe there will be some surprises.”
Dissecting the blue-line battle starts with a simple premise: There are seven veterans with at least 242 games of NHL experience, and roster spots are theirs to lose. Mike Green is actually the least experienced, but he, Tom Poti and Brian Pothier are locks to be in Boston to play Oct. 1 against the Bruins.
Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz have been ahead of Milan Jurcina and John Erskine on the depth chart for the majority of the past two seasons, but escalating salaries (for Morrisonn and Jurcina in particular) and Schultz’s contract status could leave an opportunity for Collins, Sloan, or top prospects Karl Alzner and John Carlson.
“I liken it to a championship fight,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “When you come to the 15th round, you either knock him out or you go to a decision. If you go to a decision, it is usually the champ who gets the call.
“We look at the seven guys as incumbents, if you will, and you look at Carlson, Alzner, Tyler Sloan, Sean Collins and even Patrick McNeill has improved a tremendous amount from the first year. Those are 12 solid defensemen. Eleven of them have played in the NHL. I think they could all make the team and play in the NHL, but whether or not they play for our team this year or not, I don’t know.”
Because of a rash of injuries, the Caps deployed 13 defensemen last season (15 if you count Sergei Fedorov and Brooks Laich filling in). Two of the call-ups who impressed were Sloan and Collins, a pair of undrafted free agents.
Both were set to be free agents this summer, but the Caps signed them to one-way NHL contracts, which means that not only will they have to pass through waivers to go to Hershey but they will cull an NHL salary while playing for the Bears.
Schultz has been in the team’s top four defensemen the past two years, but if he is shuffled down the depth chart he could end up with Hershey. He would still have to clear waivers, but his two-way contract means his salary will be significantly reduced in the AHL. Alzner and Carlson are still on entry-level deals, so they would not be exposed to waivers if they don’t make the roster.
The simplest way to alleviate the logjam would be a trade (or two), but if general manager George McPhee doesn’t find a deal to his liking he likely will try to sneak a couple of players through waivers. That could mean losing an NHL-caliber defenseman for nothing.
“I still don’t know what to expect this year,” Carlson said. “I feel a lot more comfortable out there with the systems and all that stuff. Every day I’m just going to come in here and do my best and try to make an impression. Wherever I end up is going to be the right place for me.”