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Defending champion Capitals have almost no camp competition

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — While smiles are in high supply at training camp for the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, open jobs are not.

Returning 18 of 20 the players who dressed in their Cup-clinching victory, the Capitals have almost no competition for roster spots going into the regular season. Barring injuries, the front office and coaching staff could pencil in probably 95 percent of the opening night roster before anyone hits the ice.

”Obviously, I know our roster pretty well,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday. ”It’s still going to be competitive on the fourth line. We’re going to try to find a fourth line that we’d like to add a little bit more skill, a little more speed, and what we can do on the penalty kill.”

Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby and the rest of Washington’s championship core remaining intact leaves the likes of Travis Boyd and newcomers Nic Dowd and Sergei Shumakov competing for fourth-line roles. MacLellan figures there will also be a competition between veteran Brooks Orpik and young defensemen Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey for playing time on the third pairing.

That’s a far cry from a year ago when the Capitals lost a handful of key contributors and were looking for someone – anyone – to step up and fill voids. Those voids don’t exist this year given that only fourth-line center Jay Beagle and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer aren’t around.

”You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow because it’s hockey stuff,” Ovechkin said. ”It’s hard when your friends and when some of your teammates left, especially when you win the Cup, but there’s a salary cap. … It’s hard to keep.”

It wasn’t hard this time. The Capitals signed pending free agent defenseman John Carlson before he hit the market and re-signed playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly and deadline pickup Michal Kempny. Their low turnover is similar to what the Pittsburgh Penguins had when they repeated as Cup champions.

Todd Reirden replacing Barry Trotz as coach after four years as his top assistant is the biggest change. Reirden knows the roster as well as anyone and won’t lie to players about opportunities, but he’s trying to set them up to compete for spots that might come open because of injuries.

”It’s a different kind of competition,” Reirden said. ”You can’t predict it, but all the players that are in camp, they know that there’s competition. And whether that’s competition for Day One of the season, Day 21 or 121 that there’s a chance for them to be a part of a team that is the defending Stanley Cup champs.”

Dowd saw a chance to win a full-time job with the defending champions and jumped at the opportunity. The 28-year-old who has played for the Kings and Canucks wants to show he can bring everything Beagle did and provide some more offense. He’s trying not to wonder every day in camp about where he stands in making the team.

”I spent my first two to three years of pro hockey going into training camp trying to split the atom and trying to get in the minds of the coaches and, ‘Why am I here, why I am there in the lineup, why am I this group, why am I in that group?”’ Dowd said. ”A lot of the time it makes no difference where you sit in practices and all that, and it just puts more stress on yourself in worrying about that.”

Most players at Capitals camp don’t have much to worry about because they know where they’ll be in October when the season starts. It’s almost certain Pheonix Copley is Holtby’s backup with prospect Ilya Samsonov in the American Hockey League with Hershey, and neither Bowey nor Djoos will be sent to the minors.

Boyd, who played one playoff game during the Cup run, can’t be sure and knows he’s fighting for a job.

”I didn’t want to walk in here and think that I’m on the team,” Boyd said. ”I don’t think I am. I definitely think that obviously there’s some guys here that are good players too, trying to gain ahold of I guess the one or two spots that are open.”

NOTES: Carlson and center Lars Eller are nursing minor lower-body injuries that caused them to miss the first day of on-ice work. … Reirden says the Capitals will take only a handful of veteran players to Boston for the preseason opener Sunday because the Bruins will have a big chunk of their team in China for exhibition games there.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE PHT CAPITALS COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Capitals
Capitals try to forget Cup celebrations as NHL camps open

Governor approves activities for pro teams in New Jersey

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Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Tuesday that as long as the NFL’s Giants and Jets and the NHL’s Devils follow health and medical protocols, they could open training camps or even hold competition.

The NFL’s preseason and training camps wouldn’t begin until midsummer — teams are doing virtual workouts in place of the usual on-field activities because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the NHL is planning ways to complete the 2019-20 season. Should those plans include the Devils, they now can reopen their training facilities.

“Professional sports teams in NJ may return to training and even competition — if their leagues choose to move in that direction,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.

“We have been in constant discussions with teams about necessary protocols to protect the health and safety of players, coaches, and personnel.”

A Jets spokesman said: “We are working closely with Gov. Murphy’s office, the league and our medical staff to establish prudent, health and safety measures for our staff and players. Based on those guidelines, we will begin to open our facility using a phased approach at a time that is the most practical for our operations.”

The Giants echoed those sentiments and said: “With today’s announcement by the governor, we are finalizing our plans to reopen the Quest Diagnostics Training Center. We will continue to have as many employees as possible working remotely. For employees who need to return to work at our facility, we expect to begin that process next week, and we will do so in a systematic and safe way that adheres to the state’s guidelines and NFL protocols.”

Isolating away from family a ‘hot topic’ as NHL plots return

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Young and single, Thatcher Demko has plenty of time on his hands, with little to do. Quarantining to play hockey wouldn’t be a problem for the Vancouver Canucks goalie.

“I don’t have too many roots,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ve been living pretty much out of my car for the most part for the last six, seven years just going from place to place.”

Older players disagree.

Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk doesn’t think players with children would be interested in spending lengthy stretches away from their loved ones amid the pandemic. And neither does Boston’s Tuukka Rask, who bluntly said: “It doesn’t feel right to take guys away from their families for many, many months at a time.”

It’s a reality players might have to face for the NHL to resume play, something Toronto’s Kyle Clifford calls a “hot topic” among players. While the NHL and its players’ union are discussing a 24-team playoff format to resume the season, figuring out how to incorporate family time in a potential quarantine environment is one of many hurdles to clear.

“For sure that’s a big thing,” said Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk, one of the players on the Return to Play committee and a new father. “No one wants to be away from their family for months on end, and everyone is aware of that with who’s on this committee.”

From Dubnyk and Rask in the NHL to Major League Baseball players Mike Trout and Ryan Zimmerman, pro athletes have voiced concerns about spending significant time away from family. When baseball was considering a containment bubble in Arizona to play, Zimmerman — whose wife is due to give birth to the couple’s third child in June — said he wouldn’t accept not seeing them for four or five months.

“I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen,” Zimmerman said. “Not many people have to go through that, nor should they.”

The NHL, like the NBA, does not face the challenge of trying to complete an entire season. But even an abbreviated return calls for coordinating 600-plus players at different stages of their personal lives.

“I think it’d be easier for guys without families or single guys to kind of go on quarantine and enjoy that process as much as you can,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “But it would be tough being a father myself. It would be tough to live through FaceTime in that situation. But you have to weigh the pros and cons on each side and what’s important for you and your family.”

The league was exploring various locations that could host games, including Edmonton, Columbus and Las Vegas. They could be big enough for players to bring family members with them, or the format might allow for a break in the schedule for teams that advance deep into the playoffs.

“You’ve got to kind of create this bubble, but if families are coming in and out, then I don’t know,” said Carolina’s Jordan Martinook, who has a year-old son he doesn’t want to be away from for more than a month at a time. “That kind of compromises the bubble. I don’t know if they would say your family’s got to be with you from day one the whole time or they can’t come if you’re in the bubble.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said league officials are “sensitive to the issue and are focused on finding a solution that works for the players.”

New Jersey’s Connor Carrick, whose Devils might be off until the start of next season, said he trusts NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and his staff to make a decision in the best interest of as many players as possible. Those waiting on the possibility of playing, like Washington’s Beck Malenstyn, hope there’s a resolution that weighs isolation from family members against the risk of them getting infected.

“I think there’s probably a happy medium between the two,” Malenstyn said. “You definitely don’t just want to close the door on your family in a time like this. But it’s also you have to look at it if we were going to take that step to go back and play, it’s the safety of your family to probably not have them around, either, just with the exposure to everything.”

Added Demko, the Vancouver goalie: “I think everyone’s going to have to make a sacrifice: players, owners, union. I don’t think that there is a scenario where everyone’s going to be happy with the situation.”

Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal

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The NHLPA Executive Board vote on the 24-team, conference-based return-to-play proposal went 29-2 in favor of the idea. Given the circumstances, increasing the field, rewarding the top four seeds in each conference, and using play-in games to determine the 16 playoff teams was what ended up getting approved.

The two teams that voted against the proposal weren’t in danger of missing out, but had their reasons to be against such a format.

As Lightning forward Alex Killorn explained to Joe Smith of The Athletic, the bigger field and his team having a Round 1 bye were the main concerns among his teammates.

“They didn’t feel it was fair that certain teams that probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs would have a chance to make the playoffs in a best-of-five series,” said Killorn, the team’s player rep. “My team also felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs.”

[NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format]

The approved format sees the Lightning start with a bye and participating in a mini-tournament with the Bruins, Capitals and Flyers for seeding before taking on one of the play-in round series winners. How useful those games before Round 2 would be was another issue with Killorn and his team.

“The only problem I have with that format is that the top teams that have a bye,” he said. “I don’t know how competitive the games will be going forward where the teams at the bottom will be playing playoff games right away and [would be] potentially more prepared for the real playoffs.”

Hurricanes’ view

Carolina is set to be the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and would take on the Rangers in the play-in round. The winner of that series would then play the No. 3 seed — either the Lightning, Capitals, Bruins or Flyers.

The Hurricanes had 14 games to play and were sitting in the first wild card spot at the time of the March 12 pause. Player rep Jordan Martinook and his teammates disagreed with the proposal because they felt this created format made their road even tougher.

“It just kind of limits our odds and makes you play another playoff series, basically. It wasn’t just for our team’s situation,” Martinook told reporters on Monday. “You look at teams that had a 10 percent chance to make it, and now they’re pretty much on a 50-50 playing field.”

Who knows if the Hurricanes would have reeled off a points streak over the final 14 games to improve their standing, but Martinook was confident his team could have finished strong.

“I’m not taking anything away from the top four teams,” he said, “but we felt like we could have kept climbing the ladder. It doesn’t really benefit the teams in 5, 6, 7 or 8, it kind of hinders those teams. Then, it gives a lot to the 9, 10, 11 and 12.”

Martinook acknowledged that the ideal return to play format would be to finish the regular season, but time is of the essence and the Hurricanes will be ready to play.

“We’re fine with the way it’s going to go,” he said. “You’re going to have to win to win. We’re fully prepared with what we’ve got moving forward.”

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL’s dynamic duos; Malarchuk helping veterans

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Which NHL duo could be hockey’s version of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? [TSN]

• “Saluting Jaromir Jagr, the most overqualified sidekick in NHL history” [The Score]

• The Devils showed interest in Rikard Gronborg, but his contract features no NHL out clause and he will honor the remaining term on his deal. [Swiss Hockey News]

• The story of former NHL ref Pat Dapuzzo, whose career came to an end after a freak injury, and how he’s influenced those around him. [Sportsnet]

• On Clint Malarchuk and how he’s helping veterans these days. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The one trophy Wayne Gretzky keeps in his California home is one that was gifted to him from Maurice Richard. [NHL.com]

• A great read on the history of one of the league’s best logos: the Coyotes’ Kachina’s. [Arizona Republic]

• Work on the Islanders’ new arena at Belmont Park is set to resume. [NHL.com]

• The 2020 NHL draft pool for goaltenders is thin. [Featurd]

Robby Fabbri is hoping to make Detroit his home come free agency. [Freep]

• Zayde Wisdom, a 2020 NHL draft prospect, is taking advice from the likes of Wayne Simmonds and the Stewart brothers ahead of taking the next step in his hockey career. [NHL.com]

• Looking back at the short history of the University of Alabama-Huntsville hockey program. [The Hockey News]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.