George McPhee is fond of telling the story of how a year ago the Capitals were coming off a Presidents’ Trophy season and still plugged four rookies into their opening night lineup along with Matt Hendricks, who went into camp without a contract. The message to players again this year was: If you’re good enough to make it, the team will make room.
“The guys that are going to start are the guys that we expected to be here, so there really weren’t any surprises in that regard,” the general manager said Monday.
And while there five newcomers, the Caps decided the status quo was more worthwhile than shaking things up. The cast of characters is much of the same - even as the mixing and matching potential abounds.
“I think it was the group that a lot of us felt was going to be the group,” Hendricks said. “It’s nice to hear when the coach comes in and says [you’ve made the team]. It eases a little bit on everybody, and you can take that deep breath and exhale and relax and focus in on the games at hand and the start of the regular season.”
Perreault making the team didn’t come as a shock to McPhee, who alluded Monday to the player winning the final roster competition being the one the Caps figured all along. And the 23-year-old spoke confidently from the first day of camp about his chances to make the team.
He then went out and led the Caps in scoring in the preseason, earning praise from coach Bruce Boudreau as “our best player all of camp.”
“It feels good. I’ve been waiting for it the past three years, and finally I got in and I’ve been working really hard,” Perreault said. “I think I deserved it.”
Perreault beat out Eakin, Sjogren Christian Hanson and Chris Bourque for the final forward spot. It appeared obvious during the preseason that Eakin and Sjogren could use additional seasoning with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Eakin, 20, is expected to improve his upper-body strength, while Sjogren figures to work on his skating.
“We think they’re all NHL players. It might be in two games; it might be 10 games; it might be 30 games. Down the road, they’re NHL players,” Boudreau said. “Where are they going to get the best training? Is it sitting on the bench or in the stands, or is it playing in the second-best league in the world?”
Eakin and Sjogren went into camp with a realistic chance of making the Caps. Orlov, a 20-year-old defenseman, provided a surprise by being around until Tuesday, but ultimately Washington decided he wasn’t NHL-ready.
Hershey coach Mark French and Boudreau talked extensively about how Orlov still has to refine his game, especially defensively. But that doesn’t mean the team was shocked about how he played in his three preseason games.
“He didn’t surprise us because when he came over last year he played really well in Hershey. In fact, someone had mentioned that it was the best performance by a 19-year-old defenseman that they’d ever seen in the American League,” McPhee said. “He played really well when he came over, so we knew the upside was there.”
Upside of a blue-chip prospect, though, comes with the risk of rushing a young player and dealing with the risky play he brings. Instead, the defensive corps will feature the six players everybody expected - Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik, Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz - with John Erskine the next option when he’s healthy.
And with a forward grouping similarly stocked with veterans, the status quo seems to make sense for the Caps.