Following a busy start to the summer, the Washington Capitals can finally take a break. Maybe a small one, but a break nonetheless. Why? Well, they have effectively re tooled their lineup and also signed all of their desired restricted free agents, the last of which was young defensemen Karl Alzner.
Alzner is a stud D-man not yet in his prime, and Washington got a great deal signing him for two years at $1.285 million. Some might argue that his worth will escalate dramatically by the end of this current contract, and that Washington made a mistake by not signing him long term. The truth of the matter is that Washington couldn’t afford to sign him for any more money than they did. This new contract already puts the Caps over the salary cap. and Washington will need to either pray for aging D-man Tom Poti to retire because of injury or they will need to trade away someone like John Erskine and squeak under the ceiling. Make no mistake, though, resigning Alzner – even if only for two years – was a huge priority.
With that out of the way and the cap situation some time away from critical status, we can finally look at the Caps and make some roster projections. This year’s Caps will again boast a boatload of talent and the attempt has been made to add a significant amount of grit. With that said, lets break down the forwards and then the blue liners.
First Line: Ovechkin- Backstrom- Knuble
Up top, Washington will be very strong. The top line will be somewhat fluid on the right side but the prediction here is that Mike Knuble gets the most ice time alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. There is a good chance that Troy Brouwer will also see time on the right side, but given Knuble’s familiarity with Ovechkin it’s easy to see coach Bruce Boudreau employing that line to start the season.
Second Line: Laich-Johansson-Semin
On the second line things are definitely fluid and unclear. Young Capital center Marcus Johansson made the cover of the team’s website, but will he make the strides necessary to be Washington’s permanent second line center? The answer remains to be seen. Being a smooth skating playmaker, it definitely will help the Caps’ chemistry if he can. This will open up a very strong line of Johansson, Alex Semin and Brooks Laich. The added bonus is that Johansson can be extra aggressive on the faceoff with Laich very capable of jumping in. It also makes sense to have a playmaker on Semin’s line or else you end up with Laich centering Semin and Brouwer. That is still a dangerous line but the chemistry takes a hit with a PWF, TWF and Sniper. Neither Laich nor Brouwer are known for putting extra sauce on their passes.
Checking Line: Ward/Brouwer–Halpern–Chimera
Assuming it is Marcus’ second line the Capitals third line will be extremely dangerous and tough with Jeff Halpern centering Jason Chimera and Joel Ward/Troy Brouwer. You know you have a good team when Joel Ward or Brouwer is delegated to the fourth line. Behind Halpern’s leadership and Chimera’s speed this line will be very tough to steal a cheap goal on. Especially, if Joel Ward brings his defensive minded game to the left side. If it’s Brouwer on this line watch for a lot of dumps behind the net, creating footraces for the fast Chimera. Chimera will then look to get the puck on net where Brouwer can do his dirty work while Halpern stays positionally strong high in the zone.
Fourth Line: Brouwer/Ward–Eakin—Hendricks
Washington’s fourth line will be talented and young. The biggest hope is that they play tough as well. As of right now, the fourth line center is unknown. Jay Beagle has made a strong case the last two years that he is ready for full time duty but young dynamo Cody Eakin (fresh off the Memorial Cup) is coming and he’s not stopping for anybody. The Capitals also signed young, but veteran, Swedish center man Mattias Sjogren. At the recent developmental camp Coach Boudreau commented on how much he liked Mattias’ size down behind the net. Dj King still remains a viable option on the wing if the Caps feel like they are getting pushed around at any point during the year. The only for sure player on this line (and maybe even the third line) is shootout specialist and tough guy Matt Hendricks. Just for the record, how many guys can boast those two descriptions? When you consider Brouwer or Ward already taking up one wing and Hendricks the other, the only position up for grabs is that fourth line center. Here at Inside Hockey we are officially jumping on the Eakin bandwagon and drinking the subsequent Kool-Aid that is served onboard. His speed and scoring is too good to pass up. Especially at rookie contract salary.
The crazy thing is that as stacked as the Caps are at Forward, they are even deeper at D.
First Defense Pair: Shultz–Green
Roman Hamrlik– Mike Green makes a lot of sense but Jeff Schultz has a lot of experience and chemistry already built in with Green so its more likely that Boudreau will go with Schultz–Green on his “top line”. The “top” D pairing is in quotations because as stated before, Washington will look to take advantage of their superior depth and skate out all three D lines fairly equally.
Second Defense Pair: Hamrlik-Wideman
This leaves two recent Caps and NHL veterans Roman Hamrlik and Dennis Wideman on the second line. Both guys are experienced, talented and puck movers. This a is a very, VERY dangerous second line.
Third Defense Pair: Carlson–Alzner
Last but certainly not least we have young studs John Carlson and Karl Alzner on the “third line”. Chances are both guys will log close to 20 minutes and provide excellent offensive punch (in Carlson’s case) and disciplined defensive play (in Alzner’s case) to the Caps blue line.
That is the first look at the 2011-2012 Washington Capitals. On paper, they are the best team in the NHL. But just as every year, the Capitals season will not be made in the regular season. Even another President’s Trophy won’t be enough. Washington will have to persevere and make to the Stanley Cup Final AND win it to truly live up to their potential. Oh yeah, by the way, They also have elite goaltender Tomas Vokoun and stud youngster Michal Neuvirth in net. It just doesn’t stop. ‘Til the second round of the playoffs, that is…