The hearts of many Caps fans skipped a beat on July 1st when the news broke that Phil Kessel had been traded to the Penguins. It was no secret that Kessel wanted out of the Maple Leafs organization and the Toronto Media spotlight, but not many could have guessed that he’d end up on the Penguins’ roster alongside Crosby and Malkin. After one of the weakest seasons that Kessel has had in Toronto, the Maple Leafs and Penguins executed one of the biggest trades all year involving Kessel, Biggs, Erixon, Spaling, and others, not to mention conditional draft picks on both sides.
On the same day, the Caps signed free agent and 2014 Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams to a two-year deal, and one day later the Caps traded for former St. Louis Blues right-winger, T.J. Oshie, ultimately beefing up the top two lines and solving the top line Right Wing issue that has been a thorn in the team’s side for years. Now the Caps have a complete set of top-six forwards which will make the rivalry with the Penguins grittier than ever.
The first and second line matchups will resemble something like this:
Perron, Crosby, Kessel vs. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie/Williams
Kunitz/Plotnikov, Malkin, Hornqvist vs. Burakovsky/Johansson, Kuznetsov, Oshie/Williams
As far as first lines go, the two teams are pretty well matched. Backstrom and Crosby are both highly capable playmakers, but Crosby has a much higher point production than the Swedish Center. Kessel has looked a little stale over the past couple seasons, but you could blame the organization for his offensive breakdown. Paired with Crosby on the ice, there will be no shortage of goals scored between the two. The Caps obviously have Ovechkin, the best goal scorer in the league over the past decade, who will have no trouble sniping from the left circle as always. Combine Ovechkin with Backstrom and you have the best offensive pairing in the league with tons of playing time together, which will be an advantage over the new pairing of Crosby and Kessel. Pair Backstrom and Ovechkin with another playmaker like Oshie or a clutch player like Williams and there’s no telling what might happen.
The Penguins’ second line is nearly as good as any other teams’ first line. Hornqvist and Malkin are both easily capable of a 50 point season again this year, and Sergei Plotkinov has had plenty of time to develop in the KHL before heading overseas much like Kuznetsov did. Kunitz is aging, and he has been showing signs of slowing down, but he’s still fully capable of having another 40+ point season. Because of this, the position of second line left-wing might be split between him and Plotkinov.
For the Capitals, the second line is no joke. Kuznetsov has been training harder than anyone else during this offseason to become the next big star on the team, and his performance last season has shown a huge increase in confidence and playmaking ability. Burakovsky is still a developing player and still has lots of room for improvement. If he works on his puck handling ability and becomes more familiar with how his teammates move on the ice, he can be a solid playmaker and goal scorer. It goes without saying that regardless of whether Oshie or Williams takes the Right Wing spot that the position will be in good hands.
Defensively, the Penguins are lacking. A possible top two pairing would be Olli Maatta with Kris Letang. Maatta is a young player who has already had a recurring shoulder injury that hindered his play last season, but he has shown that he’s got potential. Overall, the Penguins’ defense has been riddled with injury, and a lot of call-ups had to be made last season to fill the vacant rolls. What the Penguins need this season more than anything is to avoid injuries on the blue line. The Capitals, on the other hand, have Karl Alzner and John Carlson, of which neither have missed any games in the past five seasons. With the top two defensive pairings looking the same last season (Carlson+Orpik and Alzner+Niskanen), the Capitals should have nothing to worry about on their blue line. Dmitry Orlov will make his return to the team after missing the entirety of last season as well, and he will play like he has something to prove. As far as defense is concerned, the Caps are in a much better position than the Penguins.
This season’s series between the Capitals and the Penguins promises to be an entertaining one, whether you’re a Caps fan, a Pens fan, or just a hockey fan. It’s always fun to watch these rivals face off against each other, but with the promising season both of these squads have ahead of them, fans should expect an all-out war on ice. It would come to no surprise if both of these teams land in the top three in the Eastern Conference.
By Justin Green