In the midst of a relatively quiet off-season, the Washington Capitals already have a pretty good idea of what their lineup will look like heading into the 2016-17 season. This is perfectly understandable given that their season ended at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champions, after a hard-fought series between arguably the league’s two best teams.
The Capitals didn’t have much to improve on, though they wanted to address a weakness at the third line center position while generally adding more speed and skill to their bottom six. They began this movement by acquiring center Lars Eller at the draft, and then signing speedy winger Brett Connolly to a bargain basement price of $800,000 for one year. Eller immediately fills the void at third line center, and Connolly is more of a reclamation project that could pay off in spades for the Capitals if he begins realizing his potential.
The interesting thing here is that the organization added options to their bottom six while only losing one key piece in Jason Chimera, who departed for the New York Islanders. On the back-end, the Capitals will almost certainly enter the season with the same group of defensemen that they ended last season with, minus Mike Weber. This year’s training camp and pre-season will be one to really pay attention to regarding the Capitals.
Rounding Out The Top Four
Possibly the most important battle that will take place prior to this season is for the number four spot on the Capitals’ defensive depth chart. Many fans and pundits have their minds made up, and the player that they will look for to emerge as a top-four defenseman is Dmitry Orlov. Ironically, Orlov is one of the most maligned players on the roster, largely because of his extremely high risk, high reward style of play. Most Capitals fans either really love him or really dislike him. It is basically a Mike Green situation all over again in Washington.
His only main competition for this spot is an incumbent top four guy in Brooks Orpik. Again, many have already made their minds up that he is a bottom pairing guy at best at this point in his career. This is largely because he is slow and really doesn’t produce much of anything offensively. However, he has the “leader, grit, crease-clearing” intangibles attached to his name that coaches love ever so much, which could keep him paired with John Carlson for the foreseeable future.
Despite being the team’s number one defender, Carlson usually isn’t on the team’s top pairing. That title belongs to the combination of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, who have spent the past two seasons attached to each other’s hips. Orlov, who scored eight goals and totaled 29 points last season, would provide the most offensive upside alongside Carlson. He would also relieve Carlson of the virtual handcuffs that come with being Orpik’s partner.
We haven’t talked about Nate Schmidt yet, as he is more of a dark-horse candidate to be placed into a top-four role. Both him and Orlov push the pace offensively to a much greater degree than Orpik or Taylor Chorney, who will be the team’s seventh defenseman this year once again. Realistically, each of Orpik, Orlov and Schmidt will likely see time next to Carlson until one really stakes claim to the position.
Eller’s Right Flank
The Capitals want to have a third line with some serious offensive punch, and they will have the opportunity to ice such a line. Marcus Johansson will probably be on Lars Eller’s left-wing, but it remains up in the air as to who will be opposite of Johansson on the right-wing. Tom Wilson probably has a foot already in the door pertaining to this battle, and the Capitals have made it clear they want to develop him into the next Joel Ward.
Wilson made strides last year in cleaning up his game and asserting himself offensively, but it is unclear whether he is good enough to be a permanent third-liner on a Stanley Cup-winning roster – at least for this year. In the case where the organization doesn’t think he’s ready, they have two other options. Both are players who might be on their last chance to prove they belong.
Brett Connolly was the 6th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, but has thus far failed to live up to the high expectations placed upon him. His most successful season came last year with the Boston Bruins, where he potted nine goals and 16 assists in 71 games. While those numbers aren’t indicative of a 24-year-old former top ten pick, it is surprising that he wasn’t even tendered as a restricted free agent by Boston. It is fair to wonder whether he will flourish in a more offensive system with better linemates.
Right beside him is Stanislav Galiev – also 24 – who reached full-time NHL status last season. The problem there, however, was that most of that time was spent watching from the press box. There is no doubting his skill, but he hasn’t proven at all that he can produce in the NHL on a consistent basis. He has one goal and three assists over 26 career games with the Capitals.
One player in this trio is not like the others – Wilson certainly brings a more physical dynamic to a line, however he has shown flashes of skill as well. Galiev and Connolly bring similar skill-sets, so each of them realistically could see serious time on the third line next season, depending on what Barry Trotz wants from that trio.
The Capitals won’t have many new faces in their lineup as they enter the 2016-17 season, but the growth of some players may force Barry Trotz’s hands when it comes to key personnel decisions. As usual, we can expect some lineup tinkering as the season moves on, but once the main battles are over, the victors will likely bring more stability to their position than there was last season.