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Sunday, July 18, 2010

An early look at the (potential) opening night line-up

Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Michal Neuvirth are among the players who are looking to secure full-time positions in DC this season. (Jersey visualizations from the NHL shop)

What are the Washington Capitals going to look like come opening night on October 8th in Atlanta? One thing is for sure: this will be a somewhat different team than the one that lost to Montreal in the playoffs. Many veterans and trade-deadline pickups, such as Scott Walker, Joe Corvo, Brendan Morrison, and most likely Eric Belanger will not be with the Capitals anymore. Other players that have had longer tenures in DC, such as Shaone Morrisonn, Jose Theodore, and Milan Jurcina will also not be there. Instead, many, if not all, of the holes left by these departures will be filled by younger prospects that have spent their last few seasons developing mainly in the AHL, with the Calder Cup – winning Hershey Bears. Players such as Michal Neuvirth, Andrew Gordon, and Mathieu Perreault hope to crack the Capitals roster full time. Also in the mix is 2009 first round pick Marcus Johansson, who has spent the last few seasons in the Swedish Elite League, and is considered by the management to be ready for NHL action. However, many of the key players from last season, such as (obviously) Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom (who recently signed a new 10-year contract), Mike Green, Semyon Varlamov, Brooks Laich, Alex Semin, and the recently-resigned RFAs such as Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz, and Boyd Gordon. The only real question mark is Tomas Fleischmann, a RFA who has not yet agreed to a new contract. An arbitration hearing will be held at the end of July if a deal cannot be made until then.

Next season will truly be a test of the Capitals’ long-term strategy. While many teams do succeed with players they have drafted, few teams have a roster that will be composed almost entirely of players drafted by the team they’re playing for, such as the Caps will have. What the Capitals are doing is unconventional, but it makes it easier to build a great team while avoiding (hopefully) a huge salary cap crunch like the one that has struck Chicago this off season. While they did win a cup, and that makes it all worth it, Chicago has had to let go of many players from their championship roster, and will likely not be nearly as good next season. I at least don’t think they will be a top-4 team in the NHL like they were last season; they could conceivably not even make the playoffs. When having a roster full of drafted players, the Capitals can have great talents playing for them on entry-level deals or have players, such as Backstrom, who have resigned with the team for far below market value. This strategy does involve its own risks, but those can also have huge rewards. (For example, are John Carlson and Karl Alzner ready? If they are they could be great, or they could be only ok. What about Marcus Johansson? Is he ready to be a 2C? He could not be terribly good. Or he could end up like Backstrom, excelling on a top line. You never really know.)

With all that in mind, here is my very-early guess of what the Capitals’ lineup could look like on opening night in Atlanta.

Forwards

Line 1 Ovechkin Backstrom Knuble
Line 2 Semin Johansson Laich
Line 3 Fleischmann Perreault Fehr
Line 4 Chimera Steckel Bradley
Scratches A. Gordon, B. Gordon

For next season (or at least opening night) I don’t expect the top line of Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Mike Knuble to change. They were effective last season, and barring the replacement of Knuble by either Brooks Laich or Eric Fehr, I think the unit will stay intact.

The second line, which was made of Alex Semin – Brendan Morrison – Brooks Laich last season, will just end up getting a new center following Morrison’s departure. The team essentially has 4 options to fill that role (Laich, Fleischmann, Johansson, Perreault), and I personally think that, should Johansson be good during rookie and training camp, it is his for the taking. I hope that he has success similar to how Backstrom did when paired with Ovechkin on the top line; it would definitely help the team a lot.

The third line, which last season was Eric Fehr – Eric Belanger – Tomas Fleischmann / Jason Chimera, will also be getting a new center, as Belanger will likely not return. This center will probably be Perreault, though it could conceivably be any of the players also in contention for the 2C spot. Should Fleischmann not return, even though he has arbitration rights, Chimera or maybe Andrew Gordon will fill in next to Fehr and a center. Hopefully Eric Fehr gets more minutes this season…

The fourth line, which essentially is the players who aren’t on the top 3 lines, could have any combination of Jason Chimera, David Steckel, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Andrew Gordon, or whoever else comes up from Hershey. I have it as Chimera – Steckel – Bradley with both Gordons as scratches, though this could really be anything – whatever ends up working best.

Defense

Pairing 1 Green Schultz
Pairing 2 Carlson Alzner
Pairing 3 Poti Erskine
Scratch Sloan

Last season’s top defensive pairing, consisting of Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, will probably stay together for the time being.

The next pairing, I think, will consist of the two new rookie defensemen, John Carlson and Karl Alzner. They have been paired together in Hershey and also played together in Game 7 of the Capitals – Canadiens series. I think that they will be paired at least to begin the season.

The third line will then consist of Tom Poti and one of John Erskine or Tyler Sloan, unless GMGM either makes a move to sign a defenseman or any of Dmitri Orlov, Joe Finley, Zach Miskovic, or Patrick McNeill prove to be ready for this position. Orlov will probably stay in the KHL, and Joe Finley missed last season with an injury and will likely compete for a spot in Hershey. This leaves Zach Miskovic and Patrick McNeill as alternatives to Erskine and Sloan. If anybody, I’d say McNeill has the biggest chance. He already has some AHL experience, and most recently scored 2 of Hershey’s goals in Game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals, a 4-0 win for the Bears. Carlson and Alzner happened to be the other two scorers that time, funnily enough. Perhaps we will have 3 Bears as full time defensemen with the Caps, but it will likely end up being one of John Erskine or Tyler Sloan that plays alongside Tom Poti. 

Goaltending

Next year the Capitals goaltending will almost certainly consist of a Semyon Varlamov – Michal Neuvirth tandem in net. It has been confirmed by GMGM, and I’d be surprised if anything else was to happen. The only question is who is the #1, and who is the #1a goalie…. a question that will be answered only in training camp.

 

For next season the Caps look like they’ll be as strong as ever. A few small question marks remain, such as who will step up to be the 2C, who ends up as the 6D, and which one of our two young goalies ends up being the starter. All these will hopefully be answered during training camp. Other than all that, the core remains mostly intact, and the Caps look forward to another great season (hopefully) cumulating in a Stanley Cup championship. Now we just have to wait until October!

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