It's hard to believe, but it's been seven years since the Capitals used their sixth-round choice (177th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft on Travis Boyd, a center with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Boyd was just 17 at the time, and he was the youngest player drafted in 2011.
After four years at the University of Minnesota - where he dreamed of playing since he was three years old - and three full seasons with the AHL Hershey Bears, Boyd finally has a legitimate chance of cracking the Capitals' opening night roster this season. His bid for a berth on the roster and in the lineup began in earnest on Friday, his 25th birthday and the first day of training camp in preparation for the 2018-19 NHL season.
Boyd has nothing left to prove at the American League level, where he has put together three strong seasons. In 215 regular season games with AHL Hershey, Boyd has amassed 53 goals and 165 points. As a first-year pro with Hershey in 2015-16, he played in every game while finishing in the AHL's top 10 among rookies in goals (21), assists (32) and points (53), helping the Bears reach the Calder Cup final.
In his second season in that circuit in 2016-17, he played in all 76 games for the second straight season, finished third in the league with 47 assists and was sixth in the AHL in scoring with 63 points. In many - if not most - NHL organizations, he would have earned himself a long look with the varsity by now. But in his three pro seasons, the Capitals have had a stacked deck. They won the Presidents' Trophy in each of his first two seasons with the Bears, and they won the Stanley Cup in 2017-18. Throughout those three seasons, the Capitals have been an elite NHL team with a bevy of talented forwards, and they've been remarkably healthy as well. That's why Boyd didn't make his NHL debut until this past season, and it's why he has only played in eight regular season NHL contests and one Stanley Cup playoff game to date.
After an abbreviated summer of training and honing various parts of his game, Boyd is hoping he can put together a strong enough camp to land a roster spot and more to the point, a regular lineup spot.
"For me, it's just continuing to get stronger and faster and all that stuff in the weight room, and then I tried focusing on skills," says Boyd of his offseason work. "The one thing I learned playing in the nine [NHL] games I played in last year was that if you want to score goals, you've got to have a good shot. And your shot has got to be quick, and you've got to be good at catching and shooting because at this level, you just don't have time. If you catch a pass in the slot, it's got to be off of your stick in half a second. If you try to set it up nicely right where you want it, you're going to have a [defenseman] right in your face.
"So I tried spending a lot of time on shooting and skills, and trying to speed up my skills. Hopefully, I can transition that into a good year."
Coming off their Stanley Cup championship season, the Caps are still reasonably stacked. They lost only one forward off their Cup roster, center Jay Beagle, who signed a multi-year free agent deal with Vancouver on July 1. Beagle was Washington's lone right-handed pivot for the last few seasons, and he's well known as one of the league's top face-off artists and trusted penalty killers. This is Boyd's fourth training camp with the Caps, and for the first time, there is a pivot job there for the taking. The right-handed Boyd has designs on nailing down the vacancy created by Beagle's departure.
But this is the NHL, and nothing is given. Boyd has a legitimate chance to be Washington's opening night fourth-line center, but he is not the only one in camp who has his sights set on that gig. Playing on the wing, Chandler Stephenson had a strong rookie campaign with the Caps in 2017-18, but he is a natural center and could likely man the middle of the fourth line. Nic Dowd was signed as a free agent over the summer; he is the most significant of a couple of minor free agent signings over the summer.
Both Boyd and Dowd are right-handed, and they're the two with the best chance to nail down the job.
"There is a spot, but I'm definitely not coming in here and thinking that it's mine," says Boyd. "There are a lot of good players here who can easily walk in and have a good camp and take it. For me, I'm just going to try to draw off the confidence and experience that I gained in the spring in the playoff run from being with the team.
"Hopefully I can come in here to training camp and be comfortable enough to go out there and not be afraid to just play my game. I have to show the coaches what I can actually do, on a bigger level than the eight-game sample I played last year. I'm going to try to expand on that and continue to try to get confidence at this level and start playing how I think I can."
Boyd made his NHL debut with the Caps in Washington on Dec. 4, 2017 against San Jose, and he played in four consecutive games in March of this year. Just as he was starting to feel comfortable, the Caps' salary cap space dried up when they signed Shane Gersich to an entry level deal, forcing them to send Boyd back to the AHL for a couple weeks.
"For me, how it all worked out was just poor timing," says Boyd. "Back in the spring, I ended up playing four straight games and then - just with the timing of signings and everything - I had to get sent down. But we ended up playing in Detroit [on March 22] and winning 1-0 [in the last of those four straight games], and my line had the goal that night - I think [Brett] Connolly scored on a breakaway or something like that. But after that game. I remember taking my gear off, and I was like, 'Wow, all right. I'm starting to feel comfortable out here, I'm starting to feel when I have the puck on my stick, I can corral it and let's take a look, let's see what's out there, and let's try and make a play.' You don't want to screw up as a young guy, and it takes some time before you get that confidence where you start trying to do the things that you normally do."
Boyd was recalled for the final two games of the regular season, and was with Washington for the entirety of the team's run to the Stanley Cup. Boyd made his NHL playoff debut against the Penguins in Pittsburgh on May 7 in Game 6, the clinching contest.
"I think the value for me was just being a part of the team," says Boyd of being part of the Caps' championship drive, "being able to be a part of the team. I noticed it right away, when I was thinking about driving back out here for the year. In years past, you might have been a little anxious or nervous because you would come in here and you've got all of these NHL guys - some of the best players in the world - and it can be intimidating. But being able to be part of the team and part of the run, I just feel like I'm comfortable around all these guys in here, and that just makes me feel more comfortable going onto the ice."
The next step is converting that comfort into the confidence and consistency needed to sustain a successful NHL career.
"Something I've learned," says Boyd, "is that being able to take the confidence you have in the American League and for me, when I would come up and play the games that I did, I'd find myself a little hesitant to try and make certain plays that I wouldn't even think twice about in Hershey, because I don't want to turn the puck over. Part of it is that it's my first 10 games in the league or whatever, but at the same time, I'm hoping that being around everyone last year and feeling comfortable, I can take that confidence that I usually play with down in Hershey and I can show them that I can make plays and I can contribute offensively."