With the 2021-2022 season fast approaching, here’s an early look at what the line combinations could be come Opening Night for the Washington Capitals. The Capitals will roll with a familiar core group of players that fans have become accustomed to, but there are still question marks on the blue line and how Peter Laviolette intends to construct the overall line combinations.
After another first round playoff exit a season ago, there is much ado about the Capitals getting younger. Younger they will be, if not ever so slightly. Brian MacLellan has long admitted that this will remain a veteran team with a veteran core group of players. After all, there isn’t much room to become younger without trading away some of the NHL’s best players, but, expect the 24-year-old Daniel Sprong and the 21-year-old Martin Feheravy to play significant roles in the 2021-2022 season.
The biggest change in the forward groups will be Daniel Sprong. Where he will play in the lineup is anybody’s guess. Putting him in the top-six to start the season should be the route the Capitals go, for the same reasons that Feheravy should start the season in the top-four. Giving Sprong a long look in the top six, allows the team to get a sense of how he will respond facing some of the NHL’s top skaters while there is still plenty of time in the season to tinker with Sprong’s personal game or the line combinations.
The following forward line combinations will make the Capitals one of the deepest teams in the NHL and allow Peter Laviolette to confidently roll 12 guys every single night.
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LW: Alex Ovechkin C: Evgeny Kuznetsov RW: Tom Wilson
LW: Anthony Mantha C: Nicklas Backstrom RW: Daniel Sprong
LW: Conor Sheary C: Lars Eller RW: TJ Oshie
LW: Carl Hagelin C: Nic Dowd RW: Garnet Hathaway
The top line will feature Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. Whether it’s centered by Evgeny Kuznetsov or Nicklas Backstrom is the question. The edge here goes to Kuznetsov, this was the elite line that propelled the Capitals to their first-ever Stanley Cup win in 2018 and allows Kuznetsov the opportunity to make or break his season early. It’s well-known that Backstrom can center the top line and carry the load, but what transforms the Capitals from a playoff team to a serious Stanley Cup contender is the play of Kuznetsov.
‘Elite Kuznetsov’ and the Caps have a legitimate chance to win it all in 2021-2022. If Kuznetsov doesn’t play to his ability the Capitals will be hard-pressed to go deep into the playoffs. Putting him in the best possible situation to succeed is paramount to the Capitals’ success.
Placing Sprong on the team’s second line alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Anthony Mantha makes the second line an elite scoring threat and makes the Capitals top-nine that much deeper. A third-line centered by Lars Eller, flanked by Conor Sheary and TJ Oshie on the wings is undoubtedly one of the best third-lines in all of hockey. A true high-energy line that is strong on both ends of the ice with the capability to tilt the ice in the Capitals’ favor every time they are sent over the boards.
The fourth-line is a line that is set in stone to begin the season, barring injury. The trio of Nic Dowd, Carl Hagelin and Garnet Hathaway is a hard-working line that Peter Laviolette relied upon heavily last season in the defensive zone. Just take a look at the trio’s usage, Laviolette deployed Dowd in the defensive zone a staggering 86 percent of the time. Hagelin and Hathaway both over 82.2 percent of the time too. That fourth-line, allows the rest of the roster to work on scoring and it won’t change.
On the blueline, it appears apparent that MacLellan expects Peter Laviolette and the coaching staff to give Martin Feheravy a long look, early in the season on the blue-line. The former 2nd round selection in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft is a talented left-shot defenseman that looks to slot in nicely alongside Justin Schultz in the top-four.
Described as a strong skating, physical force that’s solid in the defensive-zone; the Capitals hope Feheravy can anchor the second pairing with the offensive-minded Schultz. That’s a lot to ask of a player with six games of NHL experience to his name, but MacLellan has made his expectation clear. Starting Feheravy on the second paring allows the Capitals time to analyze his play and adjust his role as needed. Having your blue-line figured out going into the playoffs is crucial and the Caps won’t want to be tinkering with it late in the season.
"“I think Marty’s ready,” MacLellan explained. “I think he’s ready to be a full-time player. How high he plays in the lineup will be up to him. I think we’re counting on him to play right away and we’ll make adjustments after that."
The defensive pairings that will take the ice at Capital One Arena on October 13th to open the season against the New York Rangers will be as follows.
LD: Dmitry Orlov RD: John Carlson
LD: Martin Feheravy RD: Justin Schultz
LD: Michal Kempny RD: Nick Jensen
The odd-man out in this scenario is Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was one of the players that the Capitals surprisingly protected in this year’s expansion draft. Despite being protected, barring injury, TvR will not start on opening night because he’s a right-shot defenseman and the right side of the Capitals defense is solid with John Carlson, Justin Schultz and Nick Jensen expected to be locks to begin the season in the starting lineup.
TvR was protected due to his team-friendly contract and versatility which will allow him to still be a large part of the Capitals’ success in the upcoming year but because Kevin McCarthy, the Capitals’ assistant coach who works with the team’s defense is a huge proponent of putting defenseman on their strong-side, Trevor van Riemsdyk will mostly be used in a utility role, adding depth to the blue-line and allowing Peter Laviolette to give players days off.
"“I’m a big believer in lefty, righty combinations,” McCarthy said before the beginning of last season. “I think it really tends to get the most out of your players. I think that sometimes when you’re a left shot playing the right side or vice-versa, it makes it tough to play the game and play the style of game that you want to play, especially in the offensive zone, keeping pucks alive on the board when they come out.”"
Dmitry Orlov looked great a season ago in Laviolette’s up-tempo system and is poised to have a breakout year in 2021-2022. He will, without a doubt, slot alongside perennial Norris Trophy contender, John Carlson on the team’s top unit. The combination of Michal Kempny and Nick Jensen has the potential to make the Capitals’ very well-rounded on the blue-line if Kempny returns to his pre-injury form and Jensen plays like he did towards the end of the 2019-2020 season.
These are the lines the Capitals could and should roll out to begin the 2021-2022 season. They are different enough from a year ago to spark change, yet familiar enough to not breakup longstanding team chemistry. October and November will be about getting the lineups right, and if they do that, Peter Laviolette will lead the Capitals back into the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season.