First-rounder Connor McMichael and third-rounder Aliaksei Protas played and excelled on Monday against Chicago in the Caps' exhibition opener, and second-rounder Brett Leason will join the aforementioned duo in the lineup tonight against the defending champs.
As a third-year draft eligible player who has already celebrated his 20th birthday, Leason is a draft rarity in that he is able to step right from the junior ranks to the pro level this season, while as 18-year-olds, McMichael and Protas are likely to get two more years of seasoning before they cut their professional teeth.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Leason will start out in a high-profile spot, skating the right side of a line with future Hall of Famers Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. McMichael skates between Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, who makes his Caps debut tonight. Protas will be on the fourth line with Beck Malenstyn and Damien Riat.
"It's a cool feeling," says Leason of his lofty lineup spot. "Growing up and watching those guys and cheering for them, they're one of the best players in the league. So to get that initial start with them, it means a lot. It shows the coach trusts me and I've just got to go out and do my job."
"I really have a lot of time for putting prospects with your highest end players early in camp," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I think that just speeds up the process for these guys. It lets them ease into the game playing with good players. Obviously, they're going to be nervous, but it certainly will allow them to have success the next game they play, because it's going to be easier than plying with two of the world's best for sure.
"So that's fun for him. He has earned it, he has had a good summer, he has done well in the rookie tournament. This is how we view him one day, and how that all plays out, no one really knows. But certainly that right-hand shot with the size that he has and the ability to move - there is only really one Tom Wilson in the league right now, with how he plays. But just the size and staure from Leason, it will be interesting to see him play in an NHL game tonight."
Video: Todd Reirden | September 18
The Hurting Business - While the Caps' 2019 draft class sails on, much of the team's 2018 class is still in dry dock. Three of the team's top four choices from the 2018 NHL Draft have yet to even suit up for drills or practices at training camp after each sustained an upper body injury at the 2019 Prospect Showcase in Nashville.
Defenseman Alexander Alexeyev and forwards Kody Clark and Riley Sutter have been on the sidelines watching, which is never an optimal situation. Given that all three are set to turn pro this fall and are now about a week behind the rest of the players in camp, it's even more difficult. While none of the three are quite ready to return to the ice, the Caps are doing their best to keep the trio engaged away from the rink.
"It is a difficult situation," admits Reirden. "And it's always tough for a young guy or even a guy coming to our organization from another team, because training camp is so important to be able to get up and running, and have them take in everything that we do, that we feel are difference makers that will allow us to establish our culture here.
"So they're around for all of the different stuff that we're going through every day, meetings and different stuff, and they're around practice and around the players of all different levels. It's just unfortunate. It's unfortunate that they're not able to be on the ice, which is what they've trained hard for the whole summer and gone through everything to give themselves a chance to make our team."
Alexeyev, Clark and Sutter were virtually certain to see NHL exhibition action this fall as they get set to embark upon their pro careers, but that window is rapidly closing. Two of the Caps' six preseason contests will be in the books after tonight, Thursday is an off day, and Washington plays just one exhibition in the next six nights after Wednesday's game with the Blues.
The opening of AHL Hershey's own training camp draws nearer by the day, and as they've done in the past, the Caps will make their first camp roster parings on Thursday, the first off day of camp.
"Yes, [Thursday] we will drop our number down," confirms Reirden. "We'll see how tonight's game goes, make an assessment as a staff, and tomorrow you can expect there to be some lineup adjustments."
I Appear Missing - Originally, Lars Eller was slated to see action in the middle of the third line tonight, skating between linemates Hagelin and Panik. But Eller has an upper body ailment that is not serious, so he will sit out tonight. Malenstyn draws into the lineup in Eller's absence, and Reirden has adjusted his lines as noted above, with McMichael manning the middle of the third line.
"Yeah, just upper body and it's preseason so we'll just have him play hopefully the next game, and do the right thing," says Reirden. "We're not going to play a player that is not 100 percent in a preseason game."
Sometime To Return - Riat scored the Caps' first goal of the preseason on Monday against Chicago, and he is back in the lineup tonight against St. Louis. But regardless of how tonight goes for him, you can expect him to be headed back to Switzerland soon, as soon as Thursday. That's got nothing to do with his performance; he has shown well at 2019 camp. But Riat is under contract for one more season with his Swiss League team (Biel HC), and the '19-20 campaign is already underway back home for the Caps' fourth-rounder from the 2016 NHL Draft.
Riat was at training camp in 2017, but was not here last fall. The 22-year-old winger has a clause in his Swiss League deal that gives him a 10-day window to come to the States to take part in the early stages of Washington's camp. Riat played in the Caps' preseason opener in 2017, but looked much more comfortable on the ice in Monday's game against the Blackhawks.
"I clearly felt better," he said after Monday's game. "Those couple of years gave me a chance to be a better player now, and maybe [have] more confidence. It was a good game."
From Washington's standpoint, they wanted to get a longer look at Riat this fall so as to make an accurate determination on his future with the organization.
"He has got one more year on his deal," Caps director of player development Steve Richmond told us of Riat in July. "He signed a two-year deal last year, so he is going into his last year [in Switzerland].
"He has improved, seeing him here. When we brought him in, he was really skinny and weak. He has really worked at it. He still has a ways to go, but he is way bigger and way stronger. He is progressing. It's a big year for him and a big training camp. He will be in training camp this year with the big guys. He's got a 10-day window where they have to release him; it's in his contract. So we can't bring him to rookie camp, because [if we did] then he couldn't come to main camp.
"We want to see him against men; we don't need to see him against teenagers anymore. It's a tough call, because we are going to have to make a decision on him. He skates well and he's got skill, but we've got to see him play in North America and see him play against men so that we know if he's got what it takes to sign him."
Video: Two-Man Advantage | September 18
In The Nets - The Capitals will split Wednesday night's goaltending duties between Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, the tandem that helped AHL Hershey reach the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs last spring.
Vanecek will start, and Samsonov will come off the bench in relief.
"We really are happy with our four goaltenders," says Reirden, "and we have already our plan for all of camp, and this is by design that they will split tonight. And then we'll move forward from this game.
"We'll give Vanecek a chance to start a game, and then see Samsonov come off the bench. And then we'll adjust that and give them proper opportunities to prove that they are in a competition here and that they should be staying. So it's a good situation for our four goaltenders."
St. Louis will suit up Jordan Binnington and Evan Fitzpatrick to handle Wednesday's goaltending duties against Washington. Binnington went from being a midseason AHL callup with a dozen minutes of NHL experience to the team's starter and mail carrier in net as it went on to win its first Stanley Cup championship last spring.
After authoring all 16 of the Blues' playoff wins with a .914 save pct. in 26 postseason games, Binnington earned a two-year contract extension that carries a $4.4 million salary cap hit.
Fitzpatrick was St. Louis' second-round choice (59th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft, the fourth goalie drafted that summer. He turned pro last season, splitting the campaign between ECHL Tulsa and AHL San Antonio.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and Blues to look when they take the ice for Wednesday's exhibition contest at Capital One Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 49-Leason
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 24-McMichael, 14-Panik
47-Malenstyn, 59-Protas, 94-Riat
17-Schwartz, 21-Bozak, 91-Tarasenko
12-Sanford, 15-Fabbri, 53-Poganski
47-Stevens, 81-Olsen, 25-Lappin
64-Polei, 76-Darcy, 65-Toropchenko
29- Dunn, 55-Parayko