Nashville is concluding a season-opening four-game homestand, and the Preds have taken two of three games to date. The Predators boast four strong lines and an active defense that jumps up into the play, creating a dangerous second wave of attack. The Preds have scored four or more goals against Washington in seven of the last 10 games between the two teams, including each of the last four. Nashville has scored a total of 23 times in those last four games against the Caps.
The offseason addition of center Matt Duchene makes them arguably better and more potent than last season.
"They're dangerous," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "The thing that we're finding in doing our scouting research is the importance of that left-handed center man. With Duchene being added to their team, he is a guy that changes the whole look of their power play and really makes them a match-up nightmare. But it's tough especially on the road, when they have the last change. But we have to be aware when those guys are on the ice."
Early on in the 2019-20 season, the Caps have been tighter and crisper in their own end of the ice. They've defended better, haven't been hemmed in as much, and their exits have been cleaner. They've done all that with some reshuffling of their blueline corps, which is considerably less experienced than it was at this time last season. Washington's improved defense will face its stiffest test of the young season tonight.
"Yeah, I think so," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "They're a team that pushes the pace, and tries to force offense a lot of times. And if you're not prepared for that, it can catch you. But also, if you have a good game plan and if you're prepared to work, you can have a lot of success against them. So it's on us to make sure we're prepared and ready to go."
Video: Caps Pregame Locker Room | October 10
Deeper And Deeper - When the AHL Hershey Bears head into the second weekend of their 2019-20 schedule this Saturday in Lehigh Valley, their roster will be further fortified. Early this week, Washington placed center Travis Boyd on waivers, and after he cleared the following day, he was loaned to Hershey. Along with goaltender Pheonix Copley and Christian Djoos, Boyd becomes the third player who spent the entirety of last season to land on the Hershey roster this season. That influx of talent at three different positions has considerably thickened the Bears' roster for 2019-20.
A confluence of factors combined to drive that trio of transactions.
First, there's the salary cap. Most NHL GMs were expecting the cap for 2019-20 to be in the neighborhood of $83 million, and when the actual number came in at $81.5 million in late June, it left a number of teams - including the Capitals - with cap woes. Within days of the Oct. 1 deadline of setting opening night rosters, roughly a third of the teams in the league were over the cap, needing to pare down to become compliant with the upper limit of the cap. A number of other teams were hovering just under that mark, with little wiggle room with which to take a flyer on a played waived by another team.
"I think teams are jammed up here, with that cap coming in low," Caps senior vice president GM Brian MacLellan told us late last month as the roster deadline drew near. "It hurts. I don't think there are too many teams looking to add. I think everybody is kind of aware. There are quite a few teams just like us, more than normal."
Second, offseason arbitration awards for both Djoos and forward Chandler Stephenson created a log jam on the Washington roster. Djoos was awarded a $1.25 million contract for '19-20, and Stephenson got $1.05 million. Last season, the Caps inked Copley to a three-year extension that carries an annual hit of $1.1 million. After signing free agents such as Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway, and getting Jakub Vrana to ink a bridge deal with a $3.35 million hit, it was obviously going to be virtually impossible for the Caps to carry the contracts of Copley, Djoos and Stephenson, and it looked as though they would only be able to manage one of the three.
If those two arb awards came in several hundred thousand dollars lower, the Washington and Hershey rosters might look a little different today.
Third, the three-game NHL suspension of Evgeny Kuznetsov bought the Caps a little bit of extra time with which to settle their roster. They didn't have to place the trio of players on waivers at the same time; each was put on waivers on a different day roughly a week apart.
Finally, in the case of Copley, the Caps have to see what goaltender Ilya Samsonov could do at the NHL level and they have to see it soon. Braden Holtby is in the final season of a five-year contract, and Samsonov is a first-round pick with a lot of upside. But they need to see Samsonov play a number of games at the NHL level this season so they can make informed roster and contract decisions next summer.
Toward the end of camp, MacLellan and his hockey ops staff and Washington's coaching staff were huddling up daily to assess the roster, the permutations and possibilities, what could work within the parameters of the cap and what would not, and looking at all of these factors in relation to the day-to-day performance of the players in games and practices. Sometimes, the movement was akin to the volatility of the stock market.
"We do cap stuff every day," MacLellan said. "We have the Kuzy suspension for three games, we have the [Michal] Kempny injury which affects it, and we have performance from players during training camp.
"How do we manage that, and what's our best lineup? How do we plan for the first three games? How do we plan for Kempny coming back? When is he ready? Is he ready game one or game 10? We don't know. Does he have a setback? Do we have another injury?
"There are so many variables, and we do the best we can every day. We watch performance from game-to-game, and we try not to be too focused on one particular game. But we are going to have to make some tough decisions. I think we have a lot of good players, and we are going to have to make a few tough decisions at the end. And we are going to have to manage a suspension and an injury, and those are going to be factors in our decisions, too."
During the Caps' six-game preseason slate, it was apparent that the Caps had built up more organizational depth than they've had in recent seasons, but it also looked as though it might be challenging to retain all that depth. But the tough decisions have been made, and the Caps managed to retain all of that accrued depth. For now, Hershey is the benefactor. But it's a plus for the Caps to have those three players - and several others - they can call upon when needed.
Copley won 16 games for the Capitals last season, and he owns a 73-48-13 lifetime mark in the AHL. Along with Vitek Vanecek, he provides Hershey with a proven and formidable netminding duo.
A veteran of 108 NHL games, Djoos totaled 13 goals and 58 points in 66 AHL games in 2016-17, his last full season in the league. He is an excellent power play quarterback at that level.
A right-handed center, Boyd is a proven top six talent and power play performer with 166 points in 217 AHL games.
October is 10 days old, but the Bears are a much more formidable group now than they were at the beginning of the month.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | October 10
In The Nets - Holtby gets the start for Washington on Thursday night in Nashville. Holtby will be getting his fourth start of the season, and he is seeking his second victory. Lifetime against Nashville, he is 3-3-1 with a 3.91 GAA and an .871 save pct.
For Nashville, we are expecting to see Pekka Rinne in goal. He has had five straight seasons with 30 or more victories, he has eight such seasons in his career, and he has one Vezina Trophy to his credit in four seasons as a finalist. Lifetime against the Caps, Rinne is 5-1-0 with a 2.50 GAA and a .910 save pct.
All Lined Up - This is how we expect the Caps and the Predators to look when they meet on Thursday night in Music City:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 18-Stephenson, 21-Hathaway
6-Kempny (lower body)
19-Jarnkrok, 92-Johansen, 33-Arvidsson
9-Forsberg, 95-Duchene, 64-Granlund
10-Sissons, 13-Bonino, 51-Watson
26-Carr, 8-Turris, 15-Smith