Two Steps Onward - By this time in the exhibition season, with the days of September dwindling, most of us are ready for it to be over and for the regular season to be underway. That's coming soon enough, but the Caps have a slew of decisions to make before Wednesday's opener in St. Louis, and tonight's penultimate preseason match against the Blues is likely to impact their thinking.
With days to go before the setting of opening night rosters, teams are usually down to 25 or 26 players, and have only a few last-minute decisions to finalize. But the NHL's salary cap stayed flatter than most expected for this season, and that leaves more teams than usual crunching the numbers - in terms of both bodies and dollars - to make the equation copacetic with the league's $81.5 million upper limit for 2019-20.
Heading into these final two exhibitions, Washington still has 34 players in camp. The Caps are likely to lop several names off their roster on Saturday morning, after they arrive back in the District after this two-game Midwest excursion, and before they fly down to Raleigh for Sunday's exhibition finale against Carolina.
All 34 players are on the trip, and most of those who didn't see action in Wednesday's 6-0 win over the Hawks in Chicago will get a sweater tonight in St. Louis.
"Now that we've had so many different guys leave the organization the last couple of years, it was really important for me to bring all these guys for both of these games," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I think the stuff that went on within that game against Chicago - the team-building stuff in the game with the shot blocks, with standing up for each other, just the excitement after the game for everyone to be in the locker room - it was really to me exactly why I had that planned.
"And obviously the game worked out well, but I just loved our veteran leadership, how they played in that game as well. So it was how it was supposed to be, and tonight we've got to hope that this group builds on that and we can have a good game in here against obviously a difficult St. Louis team."
While some of those cuts are likely to be made on Saturday, it's almost certain that all of them won't be. The Caps lost two players (Michal Kempny and Travis Boyd) to injury and another (Tom Wilson) to suspension in last year's exhibition finale. They will almost certainly let it play out until Sunday's game against the Canes is in the books.
Video: Todd Reirden Pregame | September 27
"First, you've got to look at things injury-wise," says Reirden, "and you have some ideas of how you want to have your lineup look. But the game changes so quickly; last year Travis Boyd breaks his foot at the end [of training camp]. So you have some thoughts in mind of what you want to look at, and you want to still continue to look at tonight with some [defense] pairings and some different guys playing with each other up front. We'll evaluate after and get ourselves ready for our final game against Carolina."
Help Me Make Up My Mind - Evgeny Kuznetsov's three-game suspension gives the Caps a few extra games and days to whittle their roster down, and Michal Kempny's injury status also complicates things a bit. Kempny skated on Friday morning, but he is still sporting a light blue non-contact jersey, so it's looking more and more unlikely that he will be ready for Wednesday's season opener in St. Louis. But it doesn't look like he will be out long enough for the team to place him on long-term injured reserve at season's outset, either.
For the Caps, these decisions boil down to this: putting together the best possible roster for a challenging early season schedule, making all the pieces fit within the parameters of the salary cap, and protecting/retaining as many of their waiver-eligible players as possible.
"Yeah, absolutely," says Reirden. "It's definitely a few things that are moving parts, there's no doubt about that. So we've got to make sure we do the right thing, both for our team right now, for our team down the road, and also set ourselves up so we don't misplace any assets or let any other teams have chances to get our guys if they have to do have to go through waivers.
"So there are a lot of things in play - and mix in the salary cap as well, which is not a small issue for us - and then we've got a player that's not going to be playing the first three games. There is lots there, and we'll continue to work on it as an organization to see what gives us the best chance to not only have success in the beginning of the year, but to push forward throughout the year."
Even with three of its best prospects unavailable for camp because of injury, Washington displayed a bit more depth this fall than in recent seasons.
"It's been a strong camp from that standpoint," says Reirden. "We expected our camp to be a little sharper than it was last year, and it has been. We've done a lot of good things. To me, I think we've been fortunate over the last few years to stay injury free."
In The Nets - Braden Holtby will start and go the distance in goal for Washington tonight. Holtby saw his first action of the preseason in a relief role on Wednesday in Chicago, stopping all five shots he faced in the second half of the Caps' 6-0 win over the Hawks.
Tonight, Holtby gets his first preseason start. He will also start Sunday's finale in Raleigh, but Reirden did not commit to him going the distance in that game.
Video: Rinkside Update | Braden Holtby
"I got a week, two weeks of training camp in," says Holtby, "real intense practices and that kind of thing, whereas if you go in early [in camp], you're not quite as sharp. You're not used to seeing guys at full speed. So it was nice and you felt a little more comfortable. Obviously tonight will be better, getting a start from the get go, but I think it's something that was planned out well."
For the Blues, Ville Husso is the expected starter. He is also likely to go all the way tonight, with former Lightning and Sabres farmhand Adam Wilcox serving as the backup.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps to look and the Blues' roster for Friday night's exhibition game in St. Louis:
63-Gersich, 92-Kuznetsov, 72-Boyd
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 18-Stephenson
47-Malenstyn, 26-Dowd, 28-Leipsic
87-O'Brien, 23-Sgarbossa, 64-Pinho