Exceptions come along, but they're rare. For just the second time in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Caps are headed out on a preseason road trip, one that has them playing games in multiple cities without a return trip to the District in between. The last time this happened was Oct. 5-7, 2016 when Washington faced the St. Louis Blues in Kansas City and then played the Hurricanes in Carolina two nights later.
On a typical trip, the Caps would have 22 or 23 players, with maybe an extra one or two in the event of an injury or two. For this trip, they'll be bringing everyone who is still on the roster. That's a total of 34 players - four goaltenders, 11 defensemen and 19 forwards. Only one of those players - defenseman Michal Kempny (more on him in a bit) - is unlikely to see action during the trip.
"We are going to bring all of our players on the road with us," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I think it's important culturally for everyone to play in these two games. It's the right thing in terms of how everything is spaced out in terms of playing games. It also gets our entire group together, and we're going to need all of these guys. There is a good chance that is going to happen. So I want them to understand what this is all about, guys who are new to the organization and guys who are battling for it. It's a competition, and it's on. These last two games are very important."
They're important from the standpoint of setting Washington's opening night roster, which must be submitted to league offices less than a week from now, on the afternoon of Oct. 1. They're also important because the opening night roster is not as important as many in the media make it out to be. It's literally a one-day snapshot of what a given team's roster looks like, and it's fluid and subject to change on a daily basis for the next six months. That means guys who aren't going to be on that opening night roster get an opportunity to leave a good final impression with the brass that could put them in position for a recall at some point down the road. Depth is important over an 82-game season.
Video: Todd Reirden | September 25
"We're taking a look at some different line combinations and some guys who are possibilities of playing with each other," says Reirden. "We're probably a little bit closer to that with our forward group than we are with our [defense] for tonight, and then we'll flip it in the next game. It's all done by design and being able to use certain guys in power play and penalty killing situations as well in these two games, and push to really getting ready in our final game against Carolina before we get going for real."
Given that the Caps will need to pare at least a dozen players from the roster between now and Tuesday, and given that they're currently above the league's $81.5 million upper limit for 2019-20, they've got some potentially prickly decisions to make in the next few days.
"Right now it's getting to the point where the players are going to make the decision for me," says Reirden, "and it's based on their play. Now it's just putting them in situations where it's equal competition and at the end of training camp, they can say, 'Okay, I got the same amount of opportunity as the other player, and I either won that battle or I lost that battle.' And that's where we're headed going into these last three on the road.
"You have to prepare for injuries, you have to prepare for adjustments we need to make salary cap wise, and different send-downs that are coming our way, and preparing. Like I said, I think this is a great situation with how this sets up with three home games and now three road games. We get to take everybody on a trip, they come on the plane, they go thorugh a real off day together, then they go through a game day on the road, so now they're getting their bodies prepared instead of flying in in the morning. There is lots that's right about it, and I'm excited to continue to set our players up to grow together. These are situations you can do as a coach."
Sometimes It Hurts - Before departing for Chicago on Wednesday, the Caps announced that they had loaned defenseman Alexander Alexeyev to the AHL Hershey Bears. Along with forwards Kody Clark and Riley Sutter, Alexeyev was one of three players who were injured in the 2019 Prospect Showcase tourney in Nashville. All three are heading into their first seasons as pros, and none of the three were able to participate in the Caps' 2019 camp because of those injuries. Clark and Sutter were reassigned to Hershey last week.
"The right thing to do for the player at this time was to get him up to speed in practice," says Reirden, "do our skating test, make sure everything continues to move in the right direction, have him get a full practice in Hershey, and then start to get ready to take part in games there. So right now, unfortunately with it being this late, it's pretty much impossible for us to try to get him in a game here. So this is the right decision for our organization, but it also sets the player up for success."
As the team's first-round pick (31st overall) in the 2018 NHL Draft, Alexeyev is one of Washington's top prospects. The Caps were eager to see him - as well as Clark and Sutter - at camp to get an idea of how they're progressing.
"For sure I wanted to see him," says Reirden. "It's a shame because he sacrificed this summer and he came back here as early as anybody, and he put time and effort into it. He trained, and we've already seen changes in his physique; his testing has already moved up. He is a guy that is important for us to have him keep growing and getting better."
Things Get Better - Caps defenseman Michal Kempny continues to rehab from a serious lower body injury suffered in a March 20 game against Tampa Bay. Kempny underwent surgery to repair the injury shortly thereafter, and he has been skating in a light blue, non-contact jersey for several days now.
But with only two practices between now and the season opener, and with Kempny ruled out of action for the two games on this trip, the likelihood of him being ready for the Oct. 2 season opener in St. Louis is diminishing.
"Yeah, definitely," says Reirden. "Today Michal was out there for both sessions, and again we're continuing to escalate his workload. We'll see how he's doing; obviously he is traveling with us so he can be with our trainers and be with our guys. Like I said, it's important to have everybody with us and to continue to build that bond that I think has been a real strength of ours in our room. So I want to have him around for that, and just to continue to take it day by day."
That also means that there could be a temporary roster berth - and perhaps even a lineup spot on the left side of a pairing with John Carlson - available until Kempny is deemed good to go.
"If you start figuring that Michal is not going to be in there for opening night, then someone has got to fill that void. We'll take a look at some possible options tonight."
Reirden also reiterated that the team would not be putting Kempny into the lineup until the training staff has cleared him. They don't need to rush him back.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | September 25
In The Nets - All four goaltenders remaining on the roster will make the trip to the Midwest, and Pheonix Copley and Braden Holtby are expected to see action tonight against the Hawks. Copley will start and Holtby is slated to take over midway through the game. For Copley, it's his first action since he backstopped the Capitals to a 4-3 overtime win over Chicago in the preseason opener on Sept. 16, and for Holtby, it will be his first game action since April.
We wondered whether it felt strange for Holtby to have to wait so long to see his first preseason action, compared to previous camps.
"Not really," he says. "I usually feel pretty weird if I go into one of the first two, because you're just starting camp. So it's almost nicer, because I feel a lot more prepared right now than I usually do for the first preseason game. It was something that we talked about and thought we would try it so we can try to get a bit of a rhythm and routine coming into the start of the season."
Chicago goaltender Robin Lehner left Tuesday's practice with an injury and won't suit up for Wednesday's game. The Hawks will dress veteran Corey Crawford and Collin Delia. Delia was in net for the first meeting between the two teams last week in Washington.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps to look and the Blackhawks' roster when they take the ice for Wednesday's preseason contest in the Windy City:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 77-Oshie
87-O'Brien, 18-Stephenson, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway