In recent Septembers, the Caps have participated in the Prospect Showcase, a preseason rookie tournament. Playing in that tourney gives the young hopefuls in the organization an opportunity to shake off summer rust and find their legs while going up against their peers, rather than jumping right in against the established NHL and pro players they'll be playing with and against a week or so later.
Getting some Showcase experience has helped a trio of recently drafted Caps - all of whom are at different stages of development - get ready for NHL camp a week or so later.
Video: Caps 365 | September 13
Less than three months after joining the Washington organization as the team's second-round pick (56th overall) in the 2019 NHL Draft, winger Brett Leason took to the ice for his first pro camp on Friday. Leason played in the 2019 Showcase tournament in Nashville last weekend, and as a 20-year-old who was chosen in his third year of draft eligibility, Leason is set to make the jump directly from junior hockey to the pro level in his draft year.
At this time last year, Leason was preparing for his third full season in the WHL, and his first full campaign with the Prince Albert Raiders. After being drafted in late June and attending development camp the following week, Leason went from a practice session with his Showcase teammates in Nashville last Friday, to skating on a line with NHLers Brendan Leipsic and Travis Boyd this Friday. They practiced in a group with NHL stars Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson.
"I think that rookie tournament really helped me," says Leason. "It kind of gave me a feel for playing against some of the best players in college hockey, the WHL and junior hockey. They're all around my age, so it was good to get that experience.
"Here today, just seeing some of the guys on the ice that I grew up watching, it was nice being able to practice with them."
Today marks the beginning of what Leason and the Caps both hope will be a long career in the league.
"Everyone is close in skill," says Leason after his first day of pro camp. "Every single night you need to be at your best. If you don't, people are skilled and smart in this league. It can turn around and bite you fast."
Video: Locker Room | September 13
Leason was born in Calgary, and he grew up in western Canada where his father was a football star at a similar age. As a quarterback, Darryl Leason led the Regina Rams to three straight national junior football championships from 1993-95, earning league MVP honors in the first of those seasons. The '93 team went 8-0 and is enshrined in the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
Even though they play different sports, having a dad who was an athlete was helpful to the younger Leason as he progressed along his own path.
"It was nice having him being an athlete, and just a well-known name growing up, in Saskatchewan especially," says Leason of his dad. "He did a lot of great things when he was playing, and I really appreciate having his support. He has helped me all through my hockey career even though he played football and I played hockey, he knew the game and was always there for me and always helping me along the way."
Not only that, the old man still has it. He is still on the gridiron at the age of 45.
"My dad still plays to this day," says Leason. "I went and watched one of his Alberta championship games right before I took off for here. He's still got it. His game kind of became more one-dimensional, but he can still throw the ball good."
At AHL Hershey this season, Leason is likely to be a teammate - and potentially, even a linemate - of Garrett Pilon, whose own father Rich carved out a successful 14-year NHL career as a rugged, stay-at-home defender from 1988-89. The elder Pilon played mostly for the New York Islanders, but finished up with shorter stints with the Rangers and St. Louis.
Garrett Pilon also credits his pop with helping him get to where he is now, on the cusp of getting his own first taste of NHL action.
"He always pushes me pretty hard," says Pilon. "I'm working with him a lot in the summer as well, and he is always pushing me because he knows the window is short. At the same time, I take it for granted sometimes how much he knows about the game. To have him in my corner is a huge thing."
A third-round choice (87th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft, Garret Pilon turned pro last season and put up 10 goals and 33 points in 71 games with AHL Hershey, finishing sixth on the team in scoring and leading all first-year Bears in that department. Of the five players ahead of him on the 2018-19 Hershey scoring ledger only one - center Mike Sgarbossa - is still in the organization.
Among forwards in the Washington system, Pilon is arguably the closest to being ready for an NHL trial.
Video: Todd Reirden | September 13
"You always come to this camp hoping to show that you're ready to play," says Pilon, "and I think last year was a big step for me personally. Coming in this year, it's time to go. You only have a short window to make your impact, and that window is obviously closing at the end of your entry-level [contract] and that sort of stuff, so it's time for me to really show that I can play at this level.
"Even if I'm not here [to start the season], it's about showing that I have the ability and that if I do get called up, I will be able to hold my own."
Last season's Hershey squad was packed with first-year players and had a first-year coaching staff, too. There were some early growing pains, but the group hit its stride collectively around midseason and rose from the basement of the divisional standings to a playoff berth before bowing out in the second round to the eventual Calder Cup champion Charlotte Checkers.
"It was a huge learning curve for all of us young guys, and for all the coaching staff as well," says Pilon. "Obviously they've all been behind the bench before, but it was a different setup for them as well, and they were learning along the way how to handle us while we were learning how to handle them and the AHL game. Once we found our footing there, we all came together and we really made a push. We all had the same goal, and it was pretty special."
The 21-year-old Pilon has played in three Prospect Showcase tournaments in three different cities, and he showed well in Nashville last weekend, picking up a goal and an assist in three games.
"Nashville was fun," says Pilon. "It was my first time in the city and it was really cool. The hockey obviously is a lot. Not many of us have been in the game-type scenarios [in a while], so it's pretty scrambly at times. But at the same time, it's a good time to be able to show off some offensive skill.
"This year I was going up against younger guys, so an older guy like me in that regard is going to have a little more confidence, and it's nice to have that, coming into main camp."
This season's Showcase was Pilon's last one; as a second-year pro he won't be eligible for next year's tourney. Defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler was a teammate of Pilon's at both the 2016 and 2018 Showcases, and Siegenthaler aged out of the tournament this year. While Leason and Pilon were in Nashville, Siegenthaler was in Arlington, working out and practicing informally with his Caps teammates ahead of the start of camp.
Siegenthaler ascended to the NHL last November for the first time, skating in 26 regular season and four playoff games with the Capitals. A second-round (57th overall) pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the 22-year-old Siegenthaler saw action in 122 regular season games with Hershey, with 75 of those games coming in 2017-18, his only full AHL season.
The Showcase might not have been as useful for Siegenthaler as it was for Leason and Pilon, given that the big blueliner played parts of four seasons for Zurich SC - where he was a teammate of Toronto's Auston Matthews in 2015-16 - in the Swiss-A league before coming to the States full time, starting in '17-18.
"I think it was good because I played against men for three or four years before I came over here, so I think that adjustment wasn't that hard for me," admits Siegenthaler. "It was just the smaller ice rink, but I think I got used to it pretty quick. And then the next thing was just to get used to the system here. I've been in this organization for a few years now, so I know the system. Now, it's just about confidence."
In a perfect world, Siegenthaler's AHL days are behind him. He played well for Washington last season and is one of a handful of defensemen in the mix to man the Capitals' third blueline pairing this season. Siegenthaler made his NHL debut against Columbus on Nov. 9, 2018. He averaged just over 14 minutes a night in those 26 games with Washington, and he was a plus or even player in 22 of those contests. The Caps had a 17-6-3 record in games in which he skated.
"For sure it's not going to be easy," says Siegenthaler of his bod for an opening night roster berth. "I think basically, I've got to show them that I'm still the guy I was last year. I'm in a little bit of a better position and I feel more confidence, but I know there are guys pushing from behind. I'm trying to get to my next level because I know there is still a lot of potential with me."
Siegenthaler showed up in Arlington about a month early for camp this season, and he spent more time on the ice than in summers past.
"I tried to skate a lot more, and I came here to D.C. like four weeks before camp started," he says. "I think it's the best way, because you want to be skating before training camp, to get used to the ice and feeling the puck and everything. It was good.
"I'm trying to get my overall game to the next level in all three zones. You can get an extra step in every little area, and try to be more consistent. I think that's a main key as well."
Postcards From Camp: When the Caps opened 2019 training camp on Friday, they did so with a 62-man roster split into three groups of roughly 20 players. A quartet of those players did not partake in Friday's practice and subsequent skate test because of injuries. Defenseman Michal Kempny is still rehabbing a serious lower body injury that required offseason surgery, and nearly six months after suffering the injury he is still rounding into form. Kempny was out on the ice with the first group, but he sported a powder blue sweater and was not required to go through the skate test afterwards.
Additionally, a trio of prospects who were injured last weekend in the Prospect Showcase in Nashville aren't quite ready to return to action yet. All three have upper body injuries, all three were drafted in the 2018 NHL Draft, and all three are expected to turn pro this fall. First-round defenseman Alexander Alexeyev, second-round winger Kody Clark and third-round forward Riley Sutter are all nursing ailments sustained in Nashville. Currently, all three players are day-to-day.