New coach, new general manager, new-found depth on the back end... and a decidedly not new hole on the roster at second-line center. That's how the Washington Capitals will enter the 2014-15 season, a frenzied July 1st turning a weakness into a strength on the blueline and (generously) opening up opportunity as Nicklas Backstrom's understudy.
As Barry Trotz and his staff work out the final permutations of forwards and defenders in advance of Thursday night's season-opener against Montreal, it can be difficult for the rest of us to get a good read on the team's depth chart, which in turn gets at one of the problems with traditional depth charts - should players be organized by likely line/role, talent or projected games? Is Alex Ovechkin a left or right wing? Who won (or, perhaps more accurately, didn't lose) the second-line center gig? Are How does the depth among rearguards shake out? Where does Tom Wilson fit in when he's ready to play? And so on.
And that's part of the reason we've been approaching the team's depth chart in a non-traditional way. As we noted prior to the start of last season (and the season before that), we've essentially listed the players we think have a decent chance of seeing some time in Washington this year and ranked 'em by position, allowing for overlap, which makes for a nice visualization.
It can't be stressed enough that these are not intended to be read as a prediction of line combinations or roles (i.e. scorers versus checkers), or even to predict who would be recalled in the event of an injury (if a scoring line wing gets hurt medium-to-long-term, for example, he's likely to be replaced by someone with a similar skillset, whereas a more defensive-minded grinder will likely be spelled by someone in more of a checking-line mold).
With that set-up out of the way, here's a look at the forwards:
Note that there's a line drawn at each position to mark the likely cutoff of the NHL roster - if everyone's healthy and the team doesn't make any significant moves between now and opening night, the guys above the line will likely be in D.C. (at least to start the season), the guys below it elsewhere... we think. Remember that these aren't line combos but rankings by position, with players on the lists of the positions at which they might play a reasonable amount of their even-strength time. These are also merely our best guesses - it's certainly possible, for example, that Johansson doesn't skate a single shift at center this year, but he's a realistic option there, so he's on that depth chart.
Speaking of the centers, there's nothing more illusory here than the Caps' depth down the middle. The team has an elite first-liner in Backstrom and plenty of guys who can play the position in a bottom-six role (on the fourth line, in particular), but no one has taken control of that second-line center spot and so it remains an open question. Andre Burakovsky seems to have nominally won the job (for now), but if you had to bet as to which line between his (between Johansson and Troy Brouwer) and the trio of Jason Chimera, Laich and Joel Ward sees more even-strength ice-time, where are you putting your money? Still, Burakovsky has looked like the Caps' best option to center a second scoring line right now, and the chart reflects that... which says a lot about a lot.
Ovechkin is the team's (and the Division's) best left or right wing, and Eric Fehr has become Mister Versatility - there are probably 11 roles of the top-12 that he could be placed in and find a reasonable amount of success (don't worry, Nick, your job is safe). When healthy, the depth on the wings is pretty good, with the potential for some talent on the fourth line no matter how you cut it. If the Caps find an answer at 2C and can get and stay healthy, this is potentially a very solid group up front.
On to the defense and goalies:
A year ago we used this space to lament the fact that the Caps were entering the season with three good NHL defensemen and little behind them... and that Adam Oates was insisting that John Erskine was his fourth top-four rearguard and that he was in no danger of losing it. But when Brian MacLellan signed Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik away from Pittsburgh, he addressed a problem that really persisted throughout George McPhee's tenure in D.C. and provided his (reputedly) defensive-minded head coach with the best blueline that the organization has had in at least 15 years. How Trotz deploys his defenders will be interesting (one of those good problems to have), but expect the minutes to be pretty balanced. Brooks Orpik might see more ice than Karl Alzner. Heck, Dmitry Orlov (when he gets healthy) might, as well, and the right side of the top-six is flat-out stacked. Nate Schmidt may not make the team (in fact he might be gone by the time this post runs), but he's looked good when he's been here in the past and over the past couple of weeks. John Erskine, on the other hand... thanks for your honorable service.
Finally, the team has been very clear that Braden Holtby is the number one netminder right now and newly-acquired Justin Peters his back-up, but there may be stretches where the script flips for a few games. And if Holtby misses significant time, the team could run with Philipp Grubauer as the go-to guy. Also, keep an eye on Pheonix Copley in Hershey, as he has turned some heads with his play this fall.
So that's our take on the roster and organizational depth chart at this point. Given the above, if you're Barry Trotz, what do your opening night lines, pairings and goaltender look like?