Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy are frontrunners for defensive spots on the Caps opening night roster. (Photo credit: Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
With days to go before the start of the regular season, a few questions regarding the Washington Capitals’ opening day roster remain unanswered. First among them is this: who will be the Caps bottom-pairing D-men?
With four defensemen (John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and John Erskine) pretty much guaranteed spots on the blueline for the opener in Chicago, two or three positions are up for grabs (I’ll assume Caps will roll with seven rearguards, which is likely considering the look Tom Wilson may get early in the season).
The Caps already have made some decisions regarding their opening-day roster. Nate Schmidt, Cameron Schilling, and Patrick Wey were all assigned to Hershey– a surprise to no one. First year pros Schmidt and Wey need to polish their game, while another former college standout, Cam Schilling, has always been a longshot to make the big club even despite his professional experience.
The biggest decision so far came Wednesday: the Caps waived Czech blueliner Tomas Kundratek. The 23-year-old, who got on a scoring roll in Hershey during the lockout, spent more than a half of the shortened season with the Caps. Placing him on waivers came as a bit of a surprise for me taking his low cap hit of $550,000 into consideration.
Steve Oleksy and Jack Hillen are frontrunners for two of three free roster spots with the Caps. Both were quite impressive for the Caps down the stretch last year and given Adam Oates’ loyalty towards players who have already proven themselves, I would expect both of them to make it. Their low cap numbers ($700,000 for Hillen and $541,667 for Oleksy) also help their cause.
Dmitry Orlov hasn’t had a very convincing camp in my opinion, but Adam Oates may have seen something I haven’t, and waiving Kundratek has greatly improved Dima’s chances to start the year with the Caps. Orlov, who is finally healthy after an injury-plagued year, carries a larger cap hit ($900,000) and is waiver-exempt, so if he starts a year in the big league, it will be a huge vote of confidence by the coaching stuff. But it seems unlikely that he’ll be kept up in Washington unless he’s above Hillen or Erskine in Oates’ chart. Caps would probably want a youngster to play instead of sitting in the pressbox as a seventh defenseman.
Unlike Orlov, Tyson Strachan is a perfect #7. Strachan played, quite memorably, in 38 games with Florida last year. He’s a guy Capitals management would be comfortable with sitting in the press box much of the time, and he should be able to hold his own if given an opportunity to play. Strachan carries a team-friendly $550,000 cap hit and plays a reliable defensive game.
Connor Carrick may have surprised everyone with his tremendous preseason performance, but he is the underdog. I would expect the 19-year-old to start the season with the Bears, but he may be one of the Caps recall options as a right defenseman. Carrick’s cap hit is $636,667, which seems manageable.
Michal Cajkovsky is still in camp, though it’s tough to imagine him in the starting lineup. He’s quietly had a good camp, establishing a physical presence in every game and showing some offensive touch. He doesn’t have a contract with Washington (just like forward Dane Byers, who has been considered as well). Cajkovsky may still make a name for himself, but he is a work in progress.
Wild card: Could the Caps sign a veteran blueliner to fill in? Available players include Ian White, Greg Zanon, Carlo Colaiacovo, Ryan Whitney, Wade Redden, and two familiar names: Tom Poti and Steve Eminger.
My picks are Hillen, Oleksy and Strachan. Who have you got?