With the signing of defenseman Christian Djoos on Thursday, the Washington Capitals all but locked up their lineup for the 2019-20 NHL season, putting the frantic days of free agency and arbitration behind them. Now the 22 players on the Capitals’ roster can focus on preparing themselves for the season opener on Oct. 2 against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. That will be especially important for the following three players, who were missing from the Capitals’ rotation when they needed them most.
Lars Eller’s Phantom Pains
Second-line center Lars Eller has wasted no time getting back in shape for the upcoming season, even setting up synthetic ice and a goal in his garage to create a miniature “rink.” Aside from the obvious motivation to help the Capitals back to the Stanley Cup, there is also the internal need to recover as soon as possible from a leg injury he suffered late in the season.
It wasn’t until breakdown day that Eller revealed he had played through the pain throughout the Capitals’ playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, where he even chipped in an empty-net goal. Eller could be referring to the lower-body injury that took him out of the Feb. 1 game against the Calgary Flames and limited his ice time for the rest of the season, but neither he nor the team has not been forthcoming with details.
The following month, he re-aggravated the injury while playing for Denmark during the third game of the IIHF World Championships on May 14. According to NBC Sports’ J.J. Regan, Capitals officials requested his return to the United States to avoid further damage, and the Danish team complied.
Eller is expected to make a full recovery in time for the season opener.
No Off-Season for Michal Kempny
Hopes for the Capitals brightened when the news came through of Michal Kempny doing bleacher runs through his hometown rink, DRFG Arena in Brno, Czech Republic.
Unlike with Eller, Kempny’s injury was far more visible. Against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Mar. 20, Kempny got into a physical altercation with center Cedric Paquette, who pulled him awkwardly to the ground. Two weeks later, it was announced that Kempny had torn his left hamstring, and the resulting surgery placed him on injured reserve.
The Capitals missed his presence on defense during the playoffs, as the Hurricanes scored 21 goals over the Caps’ shorthanded defense in the seven games.
Over the offseason, Kempny has worked to get his leg back in shape, even resorting to cryotherapy. Kempny is also expected to recover in time for the opening game.
A Long Climb for T.J. Oshie
Warren Foegle’s hard check on forward T.J. Oshie during the third period of game four proved to be the turning point of the Capitals’ first-round series with Carolina. Coming into that game on Apr. 18, Washington led the series two games to one. The hit fractured Oshie’s collarbone and forced him out of action for the rest of the series. The Capitals lost that day, lost their momentum, and never recovered.
A former St. Louis Blue, it had to add insult to injury to watch his former team celebrate their first Stanley Cup victory without him.
Despite the layoff from skating, Oshie hasn’t stayed still this off-season, doing everything from recording a promotional piece for the D.C. Metro to funneling beer down his throat at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
Finally, just this Tuesday, Oshie returned to the ice for the first time since the playoff game, as he participated in skating drills at the IcePlex along with Eller and John Carlson. For the moment, he is focusing on finding his skating form once again. Oshie is also expected to recover in time to start in the Capitals’ season opener, where he will face the team that drafted him in 2005.
Every team has to deal with absences during the season, but the Capitals dealt with three key absences at the worst possible time – just before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps if things had turned out differently, there would be a second Cup banner ready to be raised on Oct. 2. If Eller, Kempny, Oshie, and the rest of the key Capitals can stay on the ice and off of the scratch list, that banner could come this year.