Throughout their 2021 training camp, the Caps have been adjusting to life without Nicklas Backstrom. Now down to the final hours of that camp and with Wednesday's season opener looming on the horizon, the team took the ice for a Sunday morning practice session without both Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin.
Backstrom has been absent for the entirety of camp while rehabbing an ailing hip. He won't be ready for the start of the season, and the only immediate remaining question regarding his status is whether the Caps will place him on long-term injured reserve. If they opt to do so, Backstrom would miss at least the first 10 games of the season, and Washington would gain relief from his $9.2 million salary cap hit during that span.
Midway through the first period of Washington's final exhibition game on Friday night against Philadelphia, Ovechkin suffered a lower body injury while attempting a hit on Flyers forward Travis Konecny. The Caps captain hobbled off the ice and did not return, having skated three shifts totaling 2:19 in the game.
Washington enjoyed an off day on Saturday before reconvening at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Sunday for the first of three practice sessions leading up to its season opener against the Rangers on Wednesday. For Sunday's session, rookie Connor McMichael occupied Ovechkin's normal lineup spot on the left side of a line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson.
After Sunday's practice concluded, Caps coach Peter Laviolette addressed Ovechkin's absence.
"He's day-to-day right now," says Laviolette. "I don't think it's a long-term thing, and so we'll just take it day-to-day, and hope that he improves."
"It's possible; I'm not sure," responds the coach to a follow-up on whether Ovechkin might play on Wednesday against the Rangers. "As always, you guys [in the media] will see it. Like I said, it's not a long-term thing. We'll start to see if he makes his way back here, and how it progresses over the next few days."
Video: Peter Laviolette | October 10
With the six-game exhibition season in the rear view, and with Monday's 5 p.m. deadline for submitting their opening night roster just over 24 hours away, the Caps have some decisions to make off the ice. They placed veteran defenseman Michal Kempny on waivers on Saturday, and the team will learn whether or not he cleared on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.
Kempny was trying to comeback from a second major surgery and subsequent rebab in a span of two years, and although he showed gradual improvement with each of his preseason appearances, he did not display enough to crack the team's top six. Given his lack of game action over the last couple of seasons, the Caps felt it best to send him to AHL Hershey where he will be able to get the playing time he needs to get his game and his timing back.
"This is a guy that has had a good career and has been dealt a couple of tough injuries, and has missed a lot of time," says Laviolette of Kempny. "As he comes back through our camp, we've got to evaluate things and put pieces in place.
"We really feel like it's important that he plays and that he finds his game and gets his game back to where he can become a really effective player in the NHL. Right now, if he's not in our top six, that means he's not playing and I just don't feel like that does him any good.
"And so we'll find out at two o'clock. We're hoping he is still ours. If somebody takes him, then he'll be able to get out there and continue playing and get his game back to where I'm sure he wants it to be and he is comfortable with it. If he remains ours - which we're hopeful - he gets to go down and play in games and play a lot of minutes and really work on that and try to find that groove back to where he was a few years ago when he was a big part of this team."
Aside from all of the off-ice roster machinations, the Caps still have a few practices between now their date with the Rangers. Depending on how things go, one of those sessions could become an optional, or perhaps even an off day.
"Inside of all of it, with a veteran team, rest is important," begins Laviolette. "I'm not sure that we'll grind all three days. We want to make sure that these guys are feeling good, that they're healthy, they're rested and ready to go. And so we'll definitely be here [at practice on Monday] and we'll make a decision on Tuesday, and we'll all be in here on game day on Wednesday.
"We're just going over things, just touching on things that we haven't touched on. We tried to touch on everything in training camp: 3-on-3, 4-on-3, power play, penalty kill, 5-on-3 situations, face-off plays, breakouts. We try to put everything in the mix.
"I thought the last two exhibition games with our guys was a really good effort in both games against two full rosters on the opposition. I thought we did a really good job. There's a lot of positive steps to that, and right now we'll just do our best to make sure that we understand what we're doing, that we're healthy, and that we're rested."
*Update: Michal Kempny cleared waivers at 2pm on Sunday and was assigned to Hershey.