A mere 18 months after snapping a six-year run of playoff appearances that included five division titles, and just one full season into the Brian MacLellan/Barry Trotz Era, the Washington Capitals will enter the 2015-16 season as a trendy pick to do something they haven't done in, well, ever.
As Trotz and his staff work out the final permutations of forwards and defenders in advance of Saturday night's season-opener against New Jersey, 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?
We're no longer wondering whether Alex Ovechkin is a left or right wing, but is Andre Burakovsky a center or a wing, and will it change when Nicklas Backstrom is healthy? Who's the seventh defenseman (if Dmitry Orlov has, in fact, secured that number six gig, which presupposes that Nate Schmidt has locked down number five). To be honest, there are far fewer of these types of questions heading into the season, which probably speaks to the sense of settled purpose that surrounds the club... and that's new and different.
But those questions are 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 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 - that's why the guys below the NHL cut-off line are simply ordered alphabetically.
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. (The one exception is Chris Brown, who will start the season on the NHL injured reserve list, and he or someone else will likely be sent to Hershey once he's ready to play.)
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 on the right side this year, but he might be a better top-six option than Tom Wilson there, so he's on that depth chart ahead of Wilson, the projected opening night third-line right wing, behind T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. Sean Collins will compete for ice time on the right side of the fourth line to start the campaign (even though they're behind a couple of centers on the right wing depth chart... see how that works?).
Down the middle, Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are the Caps' clear first and second options, respectively, to center scoring lines. But with Backstrom out for perhaps four-to-five games as he recovers from hip surgery, Burakovsky will get a chance to center a scoring line. When Backstrom returns, however, Burakovsky will likely be pushed to the left wing, with Jay Beagle still anchoring (ahem) the third line and Michael Latta behind him. Brooks Laich is also an option to center a bottom-six line, if necessary, but his days of being a reliable center seem to be in the past. Chandler Stephenson impressed at training camp, and could get a call if the Caps need a little skill, and Zach Sill is there if the team feels it needs a one-dimensional enforcer.
Ovechkin is the team's (and the Division's, and, really, the planet's) best left wing, and Johansson and Burakovsky slot in behind him (and could flip spots before long). The Jason Chimera that showed up for last year's playoffs is a viable third-line left wing and a good fourth liner... the one that played the majority of the previous 82 games, less so. And while it's conceivable that Laich gets back to being a five-on-five contributor, it will almost certainly be in a bottom-six role. Jakub Vrana may knock on the door if the team needs an infusion of skill, and Liam O'Brien is another back-end brawler, should the situation call for it. (Spoiler: it won't.)
When healthy, the Caps' depth up front is good, especially on the wings - there are seven "legitimate top-six forwards" here, and if Kuznetsov proves to be the answer at second-line center, the Caps should have as good a top-six as just about anyone in the East (trailing perhaps Tampa and Pittsburgh). The bottom-six is a bit of a question mark, especially given how Trotz likes to utilize a shutdown third line. But the possible weak spots up front are generally further down the depth chart than they've been in a long time, and they're the type that are relatively easy to address if need be. This is a very solid group.
On to the defense and goalies:
Remember two years ago when Adam Oates declared John Erskine his fourth top-four defender (and insisted that he was in no danger of losing it) and opened the season with Erskine, Jack Hillen and Connor Carrick comprising half of his blueline? Yikes. MacLellan addressed the defense (a problem that really persisted throughout George McPhee's tenure in D.C.) last summer, and his top-four was remarkably stable throughout last season, missing only four man-games (all Brooks Orpik) and basically maintaining two consistent pairings the whole way. That kind of health is almost unheard of, and the Caps may not be quite as fortunate in their top-four this year... but the third pair, likely Schmidt and Orlov both missed significant chunks of last season (Orlov missed the NHL campaign in its entirety), and hopefully can get on track, stay healthy and step up if someone in front of them stumbles.
Taylor Chorney is slated to start the season as the seventh defenseman, with Ryan Stanton, Aaron Ness and Carrick behind him, and prospects Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos on the radar as well (and there's more right-left flexibility in the group than is indicated on the chart). The back-end depth on the blueline is concerning (there's a good chance the team will need to use ten or more defenseman over the course of the year), and they'll miss Mike Green, but, like the forwards, this is a solid group.
Finally, the team is set in goal with Braden Holtby coming off his breakout campaign (and signing a big new deal), Philipp Grubauer ably backing him up, and veterans Justin Peters and Dan Ellis (both of whom had good training camps) on speed dial in case Holtby or Grubauer gets banged up. Presumably Holtby won't be playing 70-plus games again this season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Grubauer get a chance and run with it for a bit at some point. Between the two, the Caps have one of the better goaltending tandems in the League.
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 look like (and how do they change once Backstrom is healthy)?