Just two full seasons into the Brian MacLellan/Barry Trotz Era, the Washington Capitals will once again enter a season with Cup-contending aspirations and a team to legitimize those hopes as realistic. But this season would seem to be a pivotal one, as it's the second of MacLellan's self-described "two-year window." With a pair of pending unrestricted free agents among the top-six forwards, a handful of key restricted free agents to re-sign, and an expansion draft all looming next summer, next year's Caps could look markedly different than this season's group. But that's still a ways off... and Opening Night, 2016 isn't.
As Trotz and his staff work out the final permutations of forwards and defenders in advance of Thursday night's season-opener in Pittsburgh (gee, thanks again for that, NHL), 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?
To be honest, there are far fewer lineup questions heading into the season than in seasons past, which speaks to the sense of settled purpose that surrounds the club. Training camp yielded few surprises (Zachary Sanford among them), as roles and responsibilities by this point have been ironed out, leaving some unknowns at the fringes, or figuring out which supremely talented pivot will skate between Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie.
Nevertheless, the limited uncertainty that does remain is 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 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 whenever, the guys above the line will likely be in D.C. (at least to start the season), the guys below it elsewhere... for now. (Also, the guys below the line are listed alphabetically, as gets recalled often depends more upon whom they're replacing and less upon other factors.)
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 if newcomer Lars Eller were to miss some time, Johansson could be a better option for third-line center than Jay Beagle, the putative opening night fourth-line center. Got it? Good.
Down the middle, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are the Caps' clear first and second options, respectively(?), to center the top-two scoring lines, but both will likely see time with Ovechkin (we've actually long advocated Kuznetsov on that top line, leaving a "shutdown" second line to dominate possession). Eller was brought in to be the third-line center this team has lacked in trying to cobble together a "top-nine," and Beagle rounds out the top-four. That quartet, when healthy, is locked and loaded.
Ovechkin is the team's (and the Division's, and, really, the planet's) best left wing, and Andre Burakovsky slots in behind him. Sanford earned a roster spot in the preseason, and that spot looks to be the third-line left wing, which pushes Johansson to the right side, though don't be surprised if Johansson is back on the left side with Sanford sent back to Hershey before too long. Daniel Winnik is the fourth-line left wing, with third-line upside, in a pinch.
On the right side, Oshie and Justin Williams will skate in the top-six (though Williams could drop to the third line for stretches, as he did in the playoffs), with Burakovsky and Johansson, Tom Wilson (in an important season for his development) and talented young reclamation project Brett Connolly also in the mix.
In terms of call-ups, Zach Sill and Stanislav Galiev were the last cuts of training camp, Travis Boyd, Paul Carey and Christian Thomas impressed at times in the fall, and Caps fans are eager to see Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber and perhaps Nathan Walker make their Caps debuts at some time during the season.
When healthy, the Caps' depth up front is good, with at least seven "legitimate top-six forwards," and a third line that could easily be the most productive they've had in years. This is a top-six and, really, a top-nine that's as good as just about anyone in the East (trailing perhaps Tampa and Pittsburgh). The bottom-six, bolstered by that third line, is better than it was last year, and the roles are better-defined. The bottom line here is that any weak spots up front are generally further down the depth chart than they've been in a while, and they're the type that are relatively easy to address if need be. This, again, is a very solid group.
On to the defense and goalies:
The top seven blueliners are the same as last year's in name, but not order. After rough season that featured a 41-game absence due to injury and a subpar playoffs, Brooks Orpik has effectively been dropped from the top-four to the third pair, and Dmitry Orlov given the chance to play bigger minutes. Will it last beyond Orlov's first ugly turnover? We'll see, but Trotz did give him a pretty long leash last season.
John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner are all pretty reliable (and predictable), but it would be nice to see Carlson take his game to the next level (something plenty of onlookers have been waiting for for a few years now). Nate Schmidt could also see a bigger role, but for now looks to be destined for that third pair with Orpik.
Taylor Chorney is slated to start the season as the seventh defenseman, with not a ton of proven depth behind him (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, and one could argue that the team lacks that true #1 defender, but, like the forwards, this is a solid group.
Finally, the team is set in goal, with reigning Vezina winner Braden Holtby coming off a career year and Philipp Grubauer ably backing him up. Should one of those two go down, the organization could have to look elsewhere for help, but the only question heading in net heading into the season is what the split in starts will be between Holtby and Grubauer - Holtby has averaged 69 starts over the last two seasons, and Grubauer could use more work than he's gotten (especially with his future somewhat unclear). Regardless, 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?