Shane Gersich to make NHL debut as Capitals experiment with bottom lines
Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz had always intended to have winger Shane Gersich make his NHL debut in one of the last six games of the regular season. And as he reviewed the team's opponents next week, playoff teams like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Nashville and New Jersey, Trotz figured this week was the right time for Gersich. The 21-year-old signed with the Capitals on Friday, March 23, leaving the University of North Dakota early to ink a two-year entry-level deal, and he'll play his first game on Wednesday night, March 28, against the New York Rangers.
"The last few games, obviously we're going and playing some top teams and teams that are desperate," Trotz said. "I think I'm going to have to get closer to what we think we'll have in the playoffs. Right now, I know I'm taking some guys out who have been very productive for us all year, but I've got to see what we have and give them some experience and sort of finalize some [decisions]. Some guys are actually fighting for some spots. . . . I've just got to get everybody ready. That's the No. 1 priority, and keep everybody healthy, if we can."
Trotz said he doesn't see his top-six forward corps - Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson - changing, but he's still exploring what mix of players he likes most in his bottom two lines before the postseason. With wingers Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana, who have 15 and 13 goals, respectively, healthy scratches, Trotz is giving Gersich, Alex Chiasson, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly the opportunity to make their case for postseason spots.
"It'll be super exciting and a dream come true for sure," Gersich said. "You know, you dream about that your whole life. It's finally here, and you're finally living it."
Gersich will have his parents and older brother at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night. A fifth-round pick in 2014, he played three seasons at North Dakota, scoring 21 goals as a sophomore and 13 this past season. Since he joined his teammates in Montreal on Friday, he's had a rapid education in the Capitals' systems, bonded with some of his new teammates and put in a pair of morning skates with a practice. On Wednesday night, he'll get to flash the speed that could make him an asset for Washington's forward depth.
"I think it's a really good test for him to see where he really is, as well as the rest of our guys," Trotz said. "There are some guys who have to show a little bit more and some guys that are getting the last sort of reprieve with me. . . . We've got to get ready for the playoffs and see exactly what we have in every area."
Trotz also added that he was happy with how rookie Travis Boyd acquitted himself at center last week when Evgeny Kuznetsov was out of the lineup with a shoulder injury. Salary-cap constraints have prevented the Capitals from recalling Boyd back from the American Hockey League, but Trotz indicated he was intrigued with the idea of playing Boyd at fourth-line center with Jay Beagle as the right wing in the playoffs, when the salary cap no longer applies. The experimentation could continue over the last six games, but Sunday's game against Pittsburgh could be a playoff dress rehearsal.
Goaltender Philipp Grubauer won't be in the lineup on Wednesday night, and Pheonix Copley will be the backup goaltender with Braden Holtby starting. Grubauer was on the ice on Wednesday morning, so the undisclosed "lower-body" injury doesn't appear to be too serious.
"He's actually pretty good," Trotz said. "He just tweaked something last game. We're going to be ultra-cautious with him. . . . I know he's going to practice tomorrow and then I expect him to be ready for Carolina."
Story by Isabelle Khurshudyan. Khurshudyan covers the Washington Capitals. A University of South Carolina graduate, she has worked at The Washington Post since 2014, previously reporting on high school sports and local colleges.