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