As we conclude a busy off-season for the Capitals‘ front office and General Manager Brian MacLellan, we now enter an interesting time in the lead-up to the regular season: who makes the roster and how do the forward lines pan out?
We’ll be examining some of these opportunities for winning roster spots, earning lineup spots, and how the forward lines could look when October 12th rolls around for the first matchup of the season against the Boston Bruins.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, and Evolving Hockey. If you’d like to learn more about some of the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL analytics glossary.
Forward lines at a glance
The Capitals’ forward group is getting something of a makeover entering the 2022-23 regular season. With Tom Wilson, Nick Backstrom, and Carl Hagelin all on the long-term injury list entering the regular season (and likely a while after that), there are some spots in the forward group to account for.
Here’s how the lineup could pan out with the known quantities on the roster, with the players who are likely to battle for these spots with the injuries and vacancies in the lineup:
1st Line: Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – [Anthony Mantha, Connor Brown, TJ Oshie]
2nd Line: [Mantha or Brown] – Dylan Strome – [Oshie or Brown]
3rd Line: [McMichael, Johansson, or Sheary] – [Eller or McMichael] – [Oshie or Sheary]
4th Line: [Jonsson-Fjallby, Johansson, or Eller] – Nic Dowd – Garnet Hathaway
As you can see, line deployments are going to be interesting. The only real solidified spots entering the season are first line left wing, first line center, second line center, fourth line center, and fourth line right wing.
Battling for the first line right wing
With Wilson’s absence on the first line, Mantha makes a lot of sense from the size perspective. The only issue there is most of your goal scoring talent is stacked onto one line, making matchups easier for opposing teams.
Last season, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Mantha only played 5:40 of five-on-five time on ice together. Although it was an extremely small sample size, they generated a 77.78 Corsi For percentage (CF%), a 75 Fenwick For percentage (FF%), and a 94.28 expected goals for percentage (xGF%).
Until Wilson returns to the lineup sometime in December’ish, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Mantha may be stacked together when the team needs a goal late in a contest. This would best suit Mantha for the second line with newcomer Dylan Strome.
Oshie has more familiarity with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, playing 36:30 of time on ice during five-on-five play last season. That’s still not a ton of time, but they posted solid results: 58.33 CF%, 62 FF%, and a 64.53 xGF%.
The only downside for Oshie is that while he had a solid defensive season (1.4 even strength defensive GAR), his even strength offense suffered (-2.8 GAR). While playing with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin more might buoy those numbers up a bit, would Peter Laviolette be willing to sacrifice offensive potential of his top line? It seems doubtful, and Oshie might be better suited for a middle six right wing spot.
Brown might be a good option for the top line right wing spot as well. He can keep up offensively, posting 3.2 goals above replacement (GAR) for even strength offense last season in Ottawa. He’s decent enough defensively and can help balance the offensive-heavy talents of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.
Brown’s not going to be winning any Selke Awards but is solid enough. He would certainly love the stat boost he’d get playing on the top line, as he’s entering unrestricted free agency next summer. At this point, as training camp begins, I’d expect Brown to get tabbed with the first line spot while Wilson rehabs his knee injury.
Second line wingers
With Brown conceivably taking the top line right wing spot, the second line becomes a bit clearer, with Strome centering Mantha and Oshie. Strome and Mantha are going to be the main offensive threats on that line, but Oshie is no slouch there either.
Oshie and Mantha played 194:45 of five-on-five time on ice last season together, posting a 50.84 CF%, 50.74 FF%, and 47.28 xGF%. We’d like to see some improvements in these stats, but with Strome’s offensive capabilities, we could see a rise in xGF%, especially with Strome being surrounded by a better team. Among the Chicago Blackhawks forward group (minimum 500 minutes of TOI), Strome was third in xGF% with 48.87%.
It will be interesting to see how Strome performs without Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane flanking him on a line. Those three skated 432:07 of five-on-five minutes together, posting 50.6 CF%, 50.72 FF%, and 51.87 xGF%. When away from those two wingers, Strome posted a 44.9 CF%, 45.27 FF%, and 42.75 xGF%. That’s likely not a knock on Strome, but more a commentary on Chicago’s forward depth, especially after they traded Brandon Hagel to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The third line is really intriguing. Lars Eller has been the mainstay at third line center since he arrived in DC for the 2016-17 season. More and more criticism has come Eller’s way, likely as a result of Connor McMichael’s ascension to the NHL roster. We’ve seen quotes from MacLellan stating that he thinks that McMichael’s game is better when he plays center.
We know at this point that McMichael isn’t quite developed enough offensively to take over as a center in the top six, but the third line center spot seems ripe for the taking. If Backstrom weren’t injured entering this season, it’d almost be a foregone conclusion that Eller would have been shipped out this offseason to free up cap space. In lieu of that possibility, Eller has proven that he has flexibility to move up in the lineup and perform admirably in stretches. That flexibility is going to be invaluable with a veteran core that is more likely to sustain bumps and bruises that just don’t heal as quickly as they did when they were younger.
The third line is going to end up being some combination of McMichael, Eller, Johansson, or Sheary. I’d feel rather confident that if McMichael doesn’t end up solidifying a position on the third line, he’ll be sent to Hershey to get more meaningful minutes in an offensive role than being relegated to fourth line deployments.
Both Conor Sheary and Johansson have the capability of playing right wing. With Laviolette’s penchant for relying on veterans, it’s likely that we enter the season with both Sheary and Johansson being in the starting lineup, pushing out a younger candidate for the fourth line like Axel Jonsson-Fjallby.
McMichael, Sheary, and Eller played 39:07 of five-on-five minutes together last season. They posted 53.57 CF%, 52.46 FF%, and 56.75 xGF%. Those three being together is a pretty solid potential option for a third line that can defend decently and chip in offensively. On the flip side of the coin, Sheary also had solid results with Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway (51.28 CF%, 51.52 FF%, 58.42 xGF% in 20:28 of five-on-five TOI), but we can get more into that in a second.
Fourth line left wing
The fourth line left wing spot is likely the position battle that matters the least. Not only in terms of it being a fourth line deployment, but Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway perform so well that they could make an anchor float. When Dowd and Hathaway are deployed together, they have a 52.41 CF%, 54.33 FF%, and a 53.46 xGF% in 549:55 of five-on-five TOI last season.
What makes this spot intriguing is the flexibility on the penalty kill and the power play. Both Sheary and Johansson are capable of playing on the second unit of the power play, but neither played very much on the penalty kill (28:43 in PK TOI for Sheary and one second for Johansson).
We can expect Conor Brown to step in for Wilson’s absence on the PK, but who is going to step in for Carl Hagelin, who skated 100:45 in PK TOI before suffering his eye injury? The most likely substitute for Hagelin is fellow Swede Jonsson-Fjallby, who skated 15:55 in PK TOI last season in only 23 games. Jonsson-Fjallby makes a ton of sense as the fourth line left wing because of his defensive capabilities and penalty kill skills. Jonsson-Fjallby has four shorthanded goals in his career in Hershey as well.
After digesting all the information and statistics above, here’s the potential line combinations. The roster spots are also accounting for special teams deployments, waiver status, and what I think Peter Laviolette likely turns to with his preference for veterans.
1st Line: Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Brown
2nd Line: Mantha – Strome – Oshie
3rd Line: Johansson – Eller – Sheary
4th Line: Jonsson-Fjallby – Dowd – Hathaway
With McMichael’s waiver-exempt status, I’d expect the Capitals to send McMichael to Hershey to develop his offensive game a bit more with more time on ice and power play minutes.
The Capitals already lost Jonsson-Fjallby to waivers once (and luckily got him back), and his skillset is a good fit for the fourth line and the penalty kill. Despite Joe Snively’s solid performance at the NHL level prior to his injury, we can probably expect both Snively and McMichael to start the season in Hershey if we can accurately predict what Laviolette might do above. We’d likely see Beck Malenstyn or Michael Sgarbossa as the extra forward in DC.
Now, for the fun part (for me at least) – here’s how I’d have the lines set up:
1st Line: Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Brown
2nd Line: Mantha – Strome – Sheary
3rd Line: Eller – McMichael – Oshie
4th Line: Jonsson-Fjallby – Dowd – Hathaway
The Caps would likely miss Johansson’s ability to effectively enter the offensive zone with puck control on the power play, but I think Strome can pick that up. Sheary and Strome could help set up Mantha for more goal scoring on the second line.
McMichael would get minutes at third line center, but he’d be flanked by veterans Eller and Oshie who have shown to have solid chemistry when deployed together in the past. I think Jonsson-Fjallby is tailor-made to fit into Carl Hagelin’s spot on the fourth line, and it just makes too much sense to overlook.
By Justin Trudel