It's nearly August and all hockey eyes (to the extent that they're on hockey) have turned to lineup construction. Free agency has slowed, as the last handful of unsigned players wonder where they're going to end up, the trade landscape is largely barren and so on. For the most part, these are the teams as they're going to be when the season starts in a couple of (long) months.
So what do the Caps have up front and how do they make the most of it? Implicit in these roster management questions are considerations of who, especially among those players who have the potential to play in different positions and/or different lines, plays where and with whom.
Let's start with what we have. If you look at a Capitals depth chart right now, each position independent of the other without respect to "lines" (thus permitting a player to appear in more than one position), it might look like this at the top, for argument's sake (don't spend a lot of time quibbling about order; the key is the interchangeability):
The object of the exercise here is to put each player in that position in which he can maximize his own and his linemates' success in a variety of situations. There is, of course, context, and that was provided by none other than the head coach himself when he sat down with Dan Rosen of NHL.com to answer "five questions." The short version of the context for roster management is this...
"You've got Marcus Johansson [as an option at second line center], who has played wing but he's a centerman with great speed in the middle...I'm going to put Marcus Johansson and [Evgeny] Kuznetsov in the middle."
"Eric Fehr played in the middle last season but I think he's probably going to end up on the wing."
"Organizationally they added Andre Burakovsky [No. 23 pick in 2013 NHL Draft] and I'd like to see him in the middle."
"Obviously the Backstrom-Ovechkin line gets all the hard matchups, but last year based on performance the Jason Chimera-Joel Ward line probably outperformed any combination that they had in a second line."
"I really like [Tom Wilson]. When I first talked to Mac [general manager Brian MacLellan], when we both got hired, one of the things I said is based on watching him play and seeing where he is, he needs to move up the lineup. He's got a lot of the qualities of a Milan Lucic-type player, a power forward, physical, but he has the ability to get around the ice and the ability with the hands to do something. I can see him moving up the ladder. Last year he was primarily fourth line and I know he should at least be in the top-nine for us."
"I'm going to play [Kuznetsov] in the middle right through, and if you get some people who are pretty hard-driving guys on his wing he could be a great fit. That's why I'm hoping a guy like Wilson will be ready to do a lot of the heavy lifting and Kuznetsov can use his high skillset to make things happen.
Got that? We can start with this for the top three lines:
We have two left wings, a right wing, and two centers to nail down. But, the careful reader might ask, what of Troy Brouwer and Eric Fehr, both of whom played top-nine minutes last season, Brouwer at right wing, Fehr mostly at center?
In addressing these matters, keep in mind two things: Barry Trotz 1) is not Adam Oates and presumably won't have the same slavish devotion to handedness with respect to where wingers play, and 2) is working with almost a blank canvas, his having coached in person against these players only infrequently as head coach with Nashville, and some players he has not seen in live game action at all. In other words, there are a lot of possibilities here, including some we might not have thought of.
So let's go through this methodically. First, Ovechkin and Backstrom are a set. It would be hard to think of them apart at this point unless either or both are in prolonged slumps. That leaves the wing ("...which one, cuz?" We'll get to that, Cheerless). Marcus Johansson got most of the work on the left side last season, but that top line was a mess at five-on-five. Besides, Trotz wants to at least look at Johansson in the middle. So, who gets the left side in this instance? The possibilities would appear to include Evgeny Kuznetsov (if he does not impress as a center), Andre Burakovsky (for the same reason), Johansson (ditto), and Brooks Laich.
We would throw another name into that mix - Eric Fehr. Right wing is Fehr's natural position, by handedness and experience, but he did get some work there last season. He is a different player than Johansson, one who out of necessity borne of circumstance and injury, made himself a better two way forward who, if not gritty in the style of a Tom Wilson, has rougher edges than Marcus Johansson. And if the Capitals continue to employ a "right-handed" version of a 1-3-1 power play, setting up on the right side and feeding to the left winger in the left-wing circle for one-timers and backdoor plays... Fehr is a right-handed shot, and one who can spell Alex Ovechkin in those infrequent times when Ovechkin is not on the ice for the man advantage. Perhaps better that playing that side become routine for Fehr.
OK, now to Cheerless' point. What if Trotz decides to move Ovechkin back to the left side that he occupied before Adam Oates took over as head coach? If you are looking to find that harder edge on the other side, perhaps Troy Brouwer moves up. The charm of that move, on paper, is that it creates an opening to move Tom Wilson up.
The second-line center spot has been a persistent problem for this club, but now it is the whole second line that has become something of a mad scientist's dream. We think that the second line center position is Kuznetsov's to lose at the moment. And if Trotz wants to see what Tom Wilson can do with Kuznetsov, it suggests Wilson getting a long look on the right side of the second line. On the left side one might find a loser in the second line center sweepstakes, be that either Johansson or Burakovsky. Either would provide a measure of speed and skill to complement Wilson on the other side.
Of course, either Johansson or Burakovsky could anchor a third line, too. Assuming Chimera and Ward are (at least to start the season) a set, they will need a center, assuming that Fehr is going back to wing somewhere. Brooks Laich could find a home here as well, just as he could find himself on the left side of the second line.
Laich represents the "known unknown" in this whole exercise. When he was healthy, which seems a decade ago, he was an extraordinarily versatile forward, capable of playing any of the top-nine forward positions (some better than others, of course). However, he has not been healthy in some time, and it just is not possible to know at this point whether, despite the corrective measures that have been taken, some of his skills from healthier days have abandoned him. He does present a different type of consideration. He can play (and has played) all three forward positions. He is something of a backstop against any forward not named "Ovechkin" or Backstrom" having a poor start in training camp or, if it comes to this, diminished production over the course of the season. In this sense he is unique among the Caps forewards, one who might find a home of a position, but who can also play "utility" forward, slotted as needed.
We have competing scenarios here, depending on which side you put Ovechkin...
You will note that Burakovsky does not make the top nine in either scenario. This is more a product of there being no apparent need to rush his development, that playing 70-plus games in Hershey is the logical next step for him, being fresh out of juniors. But again, there is that second point with respect to Trotz, that what he has is almost a blank canvas on which to work, and the possibility of Burakovsky playing himself onto the roster cannot be discounted entirely.
And that is where this all loops around to movement as a part of roster management. In the context of what Barry Trotz has said so far (see above), Burakovsky making the roster suggests that either there is going to be one (perhaps two) players stuck on a fourth line who might not have been there last year, or there could be player movement. Even if Burakovsky is assigned to Hershey, the combination of a top line scenario of Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Ovechkin; plus a desire to see Tom Wilson move up and perhaps do so as that "hard driving guy" who can play with Kuznetsov puts something of a bulls-eye on the back of Troy Brouwer.
If Brouwer is moved, the obvious question is, "for what?" Brouwer is 28 years old entering the second year of a three-year deal with a $3.67 million annual cap hit. Over eight seasons his scoring line is 111-101-212 in 449 games. Where is there a 26-30 year old on a similar contract with similar performance numbers?
Well, there is Scottie Upshall for one (30 years old, entering last year of $3.5 million cap hit deal, 107-112-219 in 490 games. Upshall has been traded twice in the last five years. In March 2009 he was dealt to Phoenix with a second round draft pick by Philadelphia for Daniel Carcillo. In February 2011 he was traded to Columbus by the Coyotes with Sami Lepisto for Rostislav Klesla and Dane Byers.
You might also look for similarities at a player like David Perron (26 years old, entering third year of a $3.81 million annual cap hit contract, 112-143-255 in 418 games). He was traded to Edmonton by St. Louis in July 2013 for Magnus Paajarvi and a 2014 second round draft pick.
What this small sample of comparables would suggest is that the market for a right winger who could play on a scoring or checking line is not likely to bring back high-end returns but, if packaged well, might bring back useful (if limited) assets or futures.
The Caps might not have elite depth among their top-nine forward potential candidates, but they do have a plethora of options. It almost looks like nine panels on the side of a Rubik's Cube, and the trick will be in getting them to align properly. It will be fascinating to watch.