It’s been 245 days since the New York Rangers eliminated the Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
On Sunday the excruciating wait for the NHL will end when the Caps officially open the start of a six-day training camp that will catapult them into a 48-game season beginning Saturday, Jan. 19, presumably in Tampa against the Lightning.
So what questions can we expect answered over the next six days? Here are five:
Why have Eric Fehr, Tom Poti and Cam Schilling been invited to camp?
Let’s start with Fehr, since he’s the most likely to win a job entering the season. At one year and $600,000 [prorated] Fehr presents minimal risk for the Caps, but his long injury history, including multiple bouts with shoulder issues, is a red flag. At 27, Fehr still has lots of unfulfilled potential and after scoring 13 goals in 21 games in Finland the Caps are hoping he’ll find his groove in his return to D.C. [Petr Sykora might be a better fit, but that’s a story for another day].
Poti, 35, is attempting to complete a two-year comeback from a fractured pelvis and looked pretty good in a week of informal scrimmages. The Caps already are on the hook for his $2.875 million salary but that figure would count against their cap if he’s deemed healthy enough to play. If Poti can move the puck effectively this week, he could slide in as a sixth or seventh defensemen.
At 24, Schilling has a full college career and half season in the AHL under his belt and the Caps thought enough of him in Hershey to give him a look. Schilling leans more to the defensive side and if he outperforms guys like Jeff Schultz and John Erskine, he could start the season with the Caps.
What about Tom Wilson? Is he ready for the NHL?
The 19-year-old prospect spent the first half of this season with the OHL Plymouth Whalers and at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds he’s been a man among boys in that league with 36 points and 59 penalty minutes in 31 games. Wilson will hit everything that moves, which is not necessarily a good thing in a shortened training camp. He needs a lot of work with his skating but the Caps love his aggressiveness and they could give him a six-game tryout before deciding whether to keep him or send him back to Plymouth.
Who’s the No. 1 goaltender?
To start it’ll be Braden Holtby. Given the opportunity to start ahead of the injured Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth last spring, Holtby was spectacular in the playoffs. At 23 he’s got tremendous upside and is coming off AHL Goalie of the Month honors for the Hershey Bears. Look for Holtby to start playing the puck more and becoming a seventh defenseman behind the net. As a rookie, Holtby will have his struggles and when he does look for Neuvirth to carry the ball. Both goalies, by the way, are in the final year of their contracts.
Who will be on the Caps’ top two lines?
Spin the wheel on that one. The most likely top line will have Nicklas Backstrom between Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer, with a second line of Mike Ribeiro between Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson. But don’t be surprised if Wojtek Wolski or Brooks Laich gets a shot to replace Johansson or Brouwer on one of the top two units. If not, Laich would be a heck of a third-center center between guys like Joel Ward, Fehr or Mathieu Perreault. That leaves a fourth line with Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks and Joey Crabb.
Is Alex Ovechkin ready for a breakout season?
Yes, for a number of reasons. The first and most important is that Nicklas Backstrom is healthy. Backstrom’s absence last season had a major impact on Ovechkin’s production dropping from 85 points to a career-low 65. The addition of puck magician Mike Ribeiro will also boost Ovechkin’s offense and you can count on Adam Oates finding areas on the ice Ovechkin can be most effective. With all that in mind, look for Ovechkin to make a run at another goal-scoring title this season. Anywhere between 30 and 35 goals should be attainable.