Capitals’ Third Line Must Perform Well to Keep Roster Spots

The Washington Capitals’ top-six forwards are set, as is the fourth line. The question going into the season was the health and performance of the third line consisting of Lars Eller, Conor Sheary, and Daniel Sprong. The pressure has suddenly increased for the trio after this past weekend’s rookie camp.

Capitals Have More Answers Than Questions

Though the Capitals are perennial contenders or perennial playoff disappointers, the next two seasons will feel like bridge years. The offensive core is locked up at least through 2023-24, highlighted by Alexander Ovechkin’s five-year, $47.5 million contract extension signed his summer. The top six eat up around $43.12 million of the team’s cap space per season, so relying on bargain deals and the development of their prospects is the practical route after 2022-23.

The organization received some insight into their future during rookie camp, and The Hockey Writers‘ Kyle Knopp was there to take it all in. The third line should be on high alert because that preseason question now has potential solutions.

The Case of Daniel Sprong

Everything starts with Sprong. The 24-year-old Dutch winger showed glimpses of greatness last season while Ovechkin was out of the lineup. Touted as a prolific scorer with strong skating and creative passing and puck-handling, Sprong was selected 46th overall in the 2015 NHL Early Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a shoulder injury and two trades due to unreliable performance, the forward has been given an opportunity to meet his potential in Washington.

The 2020-21 season was Sprong’s best, with 20 points (13 goals, 7 assists) and a plus-7 rating in 42 games. Expectations are high for the winger, and the team hopes they will get a full season from him, which is why they signed him to a two-year, $1.45 million extension a year ago. He is a restricted free agent next summer, but if he stays healthy and performs, then he should get a nice payday. If he can’t finish his first full NHL season because of another injury or inconsistent play as has been the case before, a roster spot will open up for a rookie.

Capitals’ Expiring Contracts

The only other forward the Capitals have to worry about next summer is Nic Dowd. The 31-year-old center will be an unrestricted free agent, but along with Garnet Hathaway and Carl Hagelin on the fourth line, they were Washington’s most consistent players last season. All three played in all 56 games together. The summer before 2023-24 is where things get messy.

The summer before 2023-24 is when things will get messy. Eller, Hagelin, Hathaway, and Sheary will all be unrestricted free agents after next season, and they make up a combined $9.25 million in cap space annually. Also, not to flirt with ageism here, by the summer of 2023, the four will average 33 years young. If the prospects continue to develop at the pace they are, these four skaters are at risk of not being re-signed.

The Capitals should try to extend Dowd after the season on a short discount deal, but heading into 2023-24, the third and fourth lines could look entirely different, and some of the players who could take the place of their elders showcased their talent at rookie camp.

The Future is Coming

Connor McMichael, 20, will likely see more NHL time this season. The center is heralded as the Capitals’ best offensive prospect, and rightfully so. It would be wise not to rush his development, especially considering both Eller and Dowd are capable and important in their roles. Yet, he needs more opportunity than just one game, and Washington’s center depth was exposed last season due to injuries and suspensions. Eller alone suffered three injuries in 2020-21. The first forced him to miss four games, the second another seven, and the third almost kept him out of Game 3 against Boston in the first round of the playoffs.

Forwards Garrett Pilon and Brian Pinho will get a chance if Sprong and Sheary don’t contribute enough. Also, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Brett Leason may be called up at some point this season if drastic measures need to be taken. Jonsson-Fjallby played 26 games in Sweden for Vasterviks IK last season and recorded 15 points, and Leason dressed for the Capitals last postseason.

Two other names to look out for are Aliaksei Protas and Kody Clark. Protas, 20, is large at 6-foot-6, 210-pounds, which is head coach Peter Laviolette’s preferred player frame. Knopp compared him to Anthony Mantha after scouting him this past weekend.

Clark, 21, played alongside Protas and 2020 first-round pick Hendrix Lapierre, and the three were arguably the most exciting line of the weekend. Clark was the Capitals’ 2018 second-round pick acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik.

No Reason for an Overhaul Quite Yet

Youth has been a concern of late, as has been the criticism surrounding some of general manager Brian MacLellan’s trade deadline moves. Something to keep in mind, though, is that Sprong is 24 years old and both Tom Wilson and Mantha are 27. If Sprong can be the player he’s capable of being, the offense will become good and young really fast.

If McMichael is provided with enough NHL time this season, he will be on next year’s opening night roster. Clark, Jonsson-Fjallby, Pilon, Pinho, and Protas may be ready in time for the 2023-24 offensive overhaul, and eventually, provide the Capitals with a generational transition rather than a rebuild.

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