With NHL training camps start to begin next week and preseason set to open shortly thereafter, a lot of teams already know their probable opening night lineup, including the Washington Capitals. NoVa Caps gives a pre-training camp projection of the Capitals’ opening night roster.
Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas Backstrom — Tom Wilson
It seems that the Capitals like to have Wilson on the same line with Ovechkin as the 27-year-old opens up space for the greatest goal scorer of his generation with his physicality and offensive prowess.
It is a tossup between Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov to center the two but Backstrom is coming off of a season where he led the team in points while the Capitals tried to trade Kuznetsov this offseason after numerous off-ice issues and suspensions over the past two seasons. Going into training camp, it is reasonable to give Backstrom the edge.
Anthony Mantha — Kuznetsov — Daniel Sprong
After Sprong‘s 1.59 goals-per-60 minutes last season was tied for 13th best in the NHL, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan expressed desire to give the youngest forward (24) on the roster some more ice time. With T.J. Oshie set to turn 35 in December, perhaps it is time to decrease his workload and reward Sprong. Besides, Sprong’s defensive deficiencies makes him more of a fit for the second-line than the third, which is used to play against the opposition’s top-six.
Even though his scoring took a hit after becoming the first Capital to score in each of his first four games with the franchise, Mantha played well following getting dealt from the Detroit Red Wings on April 12 and will be in a top-six role this season.
Conor Sheary — Lars Eller — Oshie
After getting just four goals from the top-six forward group (two coming from Ovechkin) in May’s five-game first-round exit to the Boston Bruins, it is time to make a change to the group. Therefore, Oshie could start out on the third-line given his age and heavy style of play, which could wear him down eventually. Considering his history with injuries (including concussions), this could be a smart move.
Playing Oshie with the trio gives it some more scoring punch as well as defensive responsibility. Eller remains a solid center and will be aiming to return to his peak scoring form, which Sheary should bring some energy and grit to the trio.
Carl Hagelin — Nic Dowd — Garnet Hathaway
No changes are made to the Capitals’ best line from last season, which was usually used to shut down the opposition’s top forwards.
Though, with the Capitals’ salary cap crunch, Hagelin could be a candidate to be moved to free up cap space as $2.75 million is a lot to pay for a fourth-line left-wing under a flat salary cap. If the Capitals can find a cheaper top penalty-killing forward, Hagelin could be moved.
Dmitry Orlov — John Carlson
The Capitals kept their top defensive pairing intact over the summer and are expected to begin the 2021-22 season with Orlov and Carlson together after a career season from Orlov in 2020-21.
Martin Fehervary — Justin Schultz
After trading Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets for two second-round picks, the Capitals have a hole on the left side of their second defensive pairing. Fehervary, a 21-year-old who has just six games of regular-season NHL experience and who earned three goals, 17 points, and a +10 rating in 24 games with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season, and Michal Kempny, who missed the entire 2020-21 season after undergoing his second major surgery in a span of 17 months, are expected to compete for the role to replace Dillon. Given Fehervary’s talent and the uncertainty surrounding Kempny, it is probable that Fehervary could win the spot supposing the Capitals do not acquire a replacement for Dillon prior to the start of the regular season.
Schultz will likely remain in the same role he had last season.
Kempny — Nick Jensen
Kempny, 31, is healthy again and is expected to be ready to go for the start of training camp but the Capitals will want to limit his minutes to start the season as he gets up to speed.
Jensen won the third right-handed defense spot over Trevor Van Riemsdyk last season, his best as a Capital, and is expected to return in the same role. Though, the Capitals could move him to make room under the salary cap with the need of a second-pairing left-handed defenseman and Van Riemsdyk in the wings to step in.
Extra: Van Riemsdyk
The 24-year-old ended last season as the Capitals’ starter and was protected in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, signaling that the organization views him as their top goalie. He went 13-4-1 with a .902 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and two shutouts last season.
After the Capitals were unable to upgrade their goaltending over the offseason, they brought back the 25-year-old after the Seattle Kraken took him in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft but signed Philipp Grubauer, making Vanecek expendable. He finished in sixth place in Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s top rookie last season but posted just a .908 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average in 37 games.
The Capitals currently have room for one extra player (baring a trade), but cap space limitations will make that a challenge. If they make room to carry another one or two players, here are the candidates for promotion:
C Garrett Pilon – The 23-year-old got a shot at the end of last season when he made his NHL debut on May 8, suggesting he could be among the first in line for a recall assignment or as an extra forward. Pilon earned four goals and 16 points in 14 AHL games last season.
C Brian Pinho – The 26-year-old got the call early last season when Kuznetsov was in COVID-19 protocol, playing two games, and stepped in for Backstrom twice in the 2020 first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the New York Islanders when Backstrom was hurt. Pinho earned eight goals and 12 points in 10 AHL games last season.
LHD Matt Irwin – The 33-year-old earned two assists, a -10 rating, a 42.23% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 42.3% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 38.82% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 24 games with the Buffalo Sabres last season and could ride the pressbox this season to allow younger players and prospects to play.
LW Beck Malenstyn – The 23-year-old played in three NHL games during the 2019-20 season and was poised to be extra on the NHL roster last season before missing last season with an Achilles’ tendon injury, which required surgery. Malenstyn finished the 2019-20 season with seven goals, 15 points, and a +5 rating in 46 AHL games.
C Mike Sgarbossa – The 29-year-old appeared in five NHL games last season and stepped in for Kuznetsov when he missed time early with COVID-19, finishing with two assists. Sgarbossa, who tallied five goals and 10 points in 14 AHL games last season, also appeared in two games with the Capitals in 2019-20.
C Connor McMichael – The 20-year-old is the Capitals’ most highly-touted prospect but will not likely start the season in the NHL. McMichael tallied 14 goals and 27 points in 33 games during his first AHL season and will probably get a handful of NHL games this season but there is no room for him at the moment. It is better to have him play games in Hershey rather than sit in the press box in Washington.
LHD Alexander Alexeyev – The 21-year-old is expected to make his NHL debut at some point this season after earning two goals, nine points, and a +11 rating in 12 AHL games; and eight goals, 16 points, and a +3 rating in 55 KHL games last season. However, he will not likely start the season with the Capitals.
By Harrison Brown