Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
After undergoing some changes to the offense in the offseason, the Washington Capitals‘ forward lines will have a different look this season. But how will they look when the team takes the ice on October 2 for opening night at Enterprise Center? NoVa Caps’ Harrison Brown introduces new possible line combinations for the Capitals’ offense and explains the logic behind putting each of the trios together.
First-Line: Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas Backstrom — Tom Wilson
This is the most obvious line combination that will start the season. The three were dominant in the Capitals’ seven-game series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the First Round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, combining for 12 of the team’s 20 goals (60%). Wilson’s physicality opens up the ice more for Ovechkin and Backstrom to showcase their offensive skill and all three can produce. While this line combination is deadly offensively, it is easy to trust each of these guys to play a strong two-way game. If Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Wilson do not start the season together, I would be shocked.
Second-Line: Carl Hagelin — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Richard Panik
While this combination may catch a lot of many readers’ eyes, there is strong reasoning behind this one. While Kuznetsov is arguably the most talented player on the Capitals, he is not known for his defensive play while Hagelin and Panik have each played well on both sides of the ice throughout their respective careers.
Panik scored 22 goals with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016-17 while primarily playing on their first-line with center Jonathan Toews. Why couldn’t he match that mark, if not exceed it while playing with Kuznetsov, who is arguably a better centerman than Toews? Placing Panik with Kuznetsov would give the Capitals a line with a known sniper throughout his NHL career with an elite passer, which is a dangerous combination for any team. Putting Panik in the top-six would get more value out of the player as he could score 17-19 goals while playing there as opposed to 14-15 in the bottom-six.
Also, how many teams could keep up with a line with both Kuznetsov and Hagelin on it? That would be fun to watch.
Third-Line: Jakub Vrana — Lars Eller — T.J. Oshie
This trio was put together during the team’s run to their first Stanley Cup championship in 2018 when Backstrom missed four games due to a hand injury. The three worked so well together that Backstrom took Eller’s normal spot on the third-line to start with when he returned. Ultimately, the three combined for two goals and eight points in five games when together during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Putting two 20-plus goal scorers from last season next to Eller could help him regain his scoring touch after his goal total dipped to 13 in 2018-19 after posting 18 the year before.
This would also be beneficial for Oshie as he will turn 33 on December 23 and may need a cut in ice-time this year because playing his normal high energy, high tempo game will take a toll on him throughout the entire season. Playing lower in the lineup means more favorable matchups, which could lead to more personal success for Oshie this season.
Speed and strong defensive play would not be an issue for this trio as Eller and Vrana are both fast skaters and Eller and Oshie are strong defensively. Vrana made strides defensively last season as well.
Putting the three together would cause fits for other teams’ bottom-six forward groups going up against them as very few could match the skill and firepower that Oshie and Vrana bring. This is the best third-line that the Capitals could put together after seeing the chemistry that the three have developed in the past and the potential for them to be one of the best bottom-six forward lines in the NHL.
Fourth-Line: Brendan Leipsic — Nic Dowd — Garnet Hathaway
The Capitals needed a shake-up with their fourth-line as it was a revolving door all season long last year and only combined for one goal, which came on a penalty shot, against the Hurricanes in the first-round last season.
Dowd was productive in his first season with the team last season and the fact that the Capitals signed him a three-year contract extension on April 11 shows that they envision him as their fourth-line center over Travis Boyd in the near future.
Hathaway had a strong year with the Calgary Flames last season, both offensively and defensively, and the four-year contract that the Capitals gave him in free agency all but solidifies his spot on the fourth-line this season.
The final spot on the line will determined in training camp but it will likely come down to Leipsic and forward Chandler Stephenson, who had a rough go last season as his -13 rating was the worst on the Capitals. He also struggled to gain head coach Todd Reirden’s trust last season as he was a healthy scratch 18 times during the regular-season. Though Stephenson appeared in six Stanley Cup Playoff games, he would have likely appeared in less had Oshie not broken his collarbone. The Capitals will likely waive him prior to opening night to clear salary cap space.
The fact that Leipsic was given a one-way contract by the Capitals in free agency shows that they value him more over Stephenson. In addition, Leipsic has a higher offensive ceiling as he averaged 0.37 points-per-game despite playing on two of the worst teams in the NHL last year (Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings).
While you may be scratching your head at how the middle-six looks in here, this lineup has a nice balance of offense and defense on every line and would give opponents fits with the depth that it has. Putting Panik and Hagelin with Kuznetsov would offset the defensive liabilities that Kuznetsov has in his game and get the most out of Panik. Placing Vrana and Oshie on the third-line would help boost Eller’s offensive production after it dropped last season, manage Oshie’s ice-time, and give the team more offensive depth. On paper, the Capitals would be a tougher team to play against and have the best chance of doing more damage this season if they ice this forward lineup.
By Harrison Brown
I’m all for line tinkering October through January, and I think proposal to move Oshie to the third will happen at some point soon, but the second line is rather weak. Still could work, similar to Pens HBK third line a couple years back.
I think Boyd played well enough to play on the 4th… hope to see more Bears up this year
Boyd is definitely in the mix, imho
Im in agreement here. I want to see Gersich speed guy who has that pitbull like Oshie hounds the puck& gets into dirty areas etc, and Im not against Boyd either who has a nice offensive touch in the amount of time we saw him up here, he can make plays whether via a pass or score.
Gersich needs to improve his shooting and puck handling before he makes the jump, but it can be done. His speed is hard to ignore.
Im all tinkering during the season when players run hot&cold bc it happens. Kuzy gets into his funk for a month and hes not looking to score the puck or make plays for OV and others hes just floating on ice, you gotta swap Backy and him Backy provides more consistent play defensively nightly& passing on a nightly basis usually. As far as the wings I dont ever see Vrana down on the 3L bc then you are talking bout taking minutes away from a potential 30 goal guy& hurting his potential, playing him 12-13mins a game. If anything sometime this year Vrana could start to get some PP Time or bump Willy down to 2L and Oshie goes to 3L bc if Vrana is the future of this franchise in the goal scoring department once OV is done in 5 yrs or so… hes going be on the top pp& top line scoring 30 goals a year getting 20minutes a game.
Why not just drop Kuz to 3rd line until he learns to play defense? Vrana and Oshie are bonafide top six players and Eller has done well in the top six in limited instances. It seems like you line-ups punish Vrana and Oshie for Kuz’s weak defensive play. Make players earn their minutes!
Not a bad idea, either ☝️
Also CS hopefully gets traded not just waived, maybe in a package deal with Djoos.
This is a also feasible, but Hershey could sure use CS. I think that’s part of the decision.
All these passionate NovaCapsFans readers want to see better this season: Especially better EFFORT. Having all these underachievers — with huge salaries — is unacceptable. Would help if the coaching staff were more effective!
Basically, the author proposes a demotion for Kuznetsov to the 3rd line. I disagree. I think Kuznetsov with Ovechkin and Wilson is still a viable line. He’ll get over his concussion issues. I think Eller between Panik and Hagelin works fine but I’d also point out the lines should be shuffled situationailly inside the games. If CS manages to stay on the team, he makes a viable 4C and can plug into any slot in lines 2-4 as needed. Can’t say that about Dowd or Boyd.
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This line up makes analytical sense if you think about it. Instead of having to overly rely on the Ovechkin/Backstrom/Wilson trio, you can spread the minutes out more. Last season the rest of the lineup was crunching heavy minutes because Reirden couldnt trust the 4th line and they were having 7-8 minute nights. Having this lineup means that everyone will be playing closer minutes. And you could arguably give the 3rd line a little more time than the second because of Eller and Oshie’s defensive skills and Vrana definitely deserves more time than Panik or Hagelin.