Training camp is barely a couple of days old, so the line combinations that Bruce Boudreau throws out there for the Washington Capitals aren't set.
"Don't read anything into anything, please," Boudreau said to some laughs. "I know you are going to, but please don't."
Even though there was the intriguing switch of Marcus Johansson skating on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich playing on the wing, it's far too early to make grand statements about anyone. But Boudreau's ability to tinker with his lineup — as he's sure to do plenty over the coming months — is a testament to some interesting competition that will ensue before the roster is set.
Not only are there four or five players fighting for the final spot or two, but veteran newcomers Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik have heated up some otherwise stone-cold solid situations.
"You always want players in a competitive environment, and I don't think anyone is ever comfortable being comfortable. It's not good in our business," general manager George McPhee said. "We want to keep players hungry. The competition level with this squad is pretty high right now."
That's what it's supposed to be like in any camp, defenseman Dennis Wideman pointed out. Wideman, however, was in camp with the lowly Florida Panthers last season.
This is a playoff team, but there's a blueprint for training camp surprises given that four rookies and Matt Hendricks (on a professional tryout contract) made the Caps last season just a few months off a Presidents' Trophy-winning season.
This fall, Brouwer could challenge Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble for quality minutes at right wing; Laich could play left wing or center and Johansson could prove he's ready to be a legitimate top-six forward.
"It's still a big competition out there. There's so many guys who want to be on the team and have lots of skills and everything to be on the team," Johansson said. "You have to be on your toes and prove that you're ready to go again."
The young guys — Cody Eakin, 20, and Mattias Sjogren, 23 — are ready and hoping to crack the NHL roster following strong rookie camp performances. Joined by dark-horse candidates Christian Hanson, Mathieu Perreault and maybe Ryan Potulny, it's not likely Washington will know its full roster anytime soon.
"There's always an offseason signing or a young kid that comes up and is going to push you for a spot. That's part of the game; that's what makes it fun," Wideman said. "You have guys coming up and pushing you to get better every day."
On defense, it appears the spots are set, but this is a much different group than the Caps expected to have a year ago. Karl Alzner and John Carlson developed into one of the best young pairings in the league, making Mike Green into a more specialized, No. 3 defenseman.
"They've been able to soak up a lot of minutes that maybe have been taken off my back — which is good, and then I can concentrate on my game and not having to focus so much on everything," Green said. Still, Green affirmed he wants to be the best — "No. 1 in every part of the game," he said.
Just as Brouwer and Ward help players such as Jason Chimera and Hendricks slide into more comfortable — albeit perhaps reduced — roles, Hamrlik's presence deepens the defensive corps and should aid Jeff Schultz and Wideman. A major surprise in training camp (such as Dmitry Orlov) could shake everything up.
"This is why this team's so good," Perreault said. "Everybody's got to be at their best to be on the ice."
It's a lot of talent for a team that again finished first in the Eastern Conference before being swept out of the second round of the playoffs. And just as the Caps drew it up, it all breeds competition.
"We explained to the players, as we always have, that if you make our team better we'll make room for you," McPhee said. "So come here and play the way you can, and it's up to you. You'll make the decision for us."
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