Who Will Be the Odd Man Out In the Caps Blueline Logjam?

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).

George McPhee has mentioned that he expects to begin a year with a full 23-man roster, also acknowledging he’d likely have to make a move in order to fit Tom Wilson under the cap.

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?

  • VeggieTart

    Kundratek had to clear waivers to be sent to Hershey. He did, and he’ll be wearing the chocolate and white this year.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    Yup. I’m interested to see how he does down there this season. Last year, he led all AHL defensemen in goals, largely because of Oates’ 1-3-1 PP that he installed.

  • dylan wheatley

    BIG WADE

  • Julie Fainberg

    Cpas?

  • VeggieTart

    Weeks after he was called up to the Caps, he STILL lead AHL defensemen in scoring. Part of me would like to see him on the big club full time and another would like to see him tear up the AHL.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    Thanks, Juilie. Fixed. Each of our posts is like a Where’s Waldo puzzle. We always have one mistake, can YOU find it? :)

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    Well last year he definitely showed he could play at the NHL level. I just think it’s a numbers game for him unfortunately.

  • bskillet

    Connor Carrick is looking mighty good, wow 18 yrs. old I don’t know. We have a lot of good young talent on the blue line, was a bit worried about this team but they’re looking good preseason aside.

  • Grin430

    Based on his performance in the 2nd period Friday nite, I would be surprised if Orlov made the team out of camp. He made several mistakes, particularly turnovers in the Caps half of the ice. On one turnover he did a circling move with the puck to gain speed, but unfortunately in the NHL that stuff doesn’t work, The Flyers were just waiting for him to head up ice, they jumped him, stole the puck and ended up scoring. Not a good play, and symptomatic of his problems the past couple of years. Huge talent, just doesn’t really “get it” yet. I think he needs a few more months in Hershey to try to rid himself of some of these issues. but would not be surprised if he was offered as trade bait.

    Carrick is another great talent as an offensive D man, but he was less than stellar on D on Friday as well. He made several glaring errors, including getting beat on one of the Flyers goals, but there were other occasions where he was just not decisive in making the play, and as a result was caught out of
    position. He needs to play in Hershey for a while, probably the whole
    year except as a potential injury call-up for a cup of coffee. He also needs to put on a couple of lbs. He’s strong for his size, but that size is pretty small. A bit more muscle mass will help him, and there’s just no need to rush him into the NHL.

    The Caps now have a serious backlog of young defensemen, on both sides of the ice. Cajkovsky has looked very good, though it was pretty funny in the 3rd period when Ovechkin passed him the puck in the 3rd period and the kid looked like he was shocked that Ovi would do that (“Who… me? you’re passing ME the puck? Now what do I do?”. He chunked his shot off the end boards, nowhere near the net.

    Along with Schmidt, Kundratek, Schilling and Wey, these guys all give the Caps something they haven’t had in years, if ever — a talented pool of young D they can call on when needed (and they will be). Can anybody remember the last time the Caps had 6 credible call-up options on D, all under 25 years old?