Nicklas Backstrom took line rushes on Monday and has not been ruled out of Wednesday's Capitals game. Even if he does not play Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks, clearly he is nearing his return. That's great news for the Capitals, but it also means the lineup is in for a pretty dramatic shake-up.
There are a lot of moving pieces to deal with here with the never-ending injuries the team is dealing with this season - plus the players in the COVID protocol - but let's do the best we can to figure out what the team may look like when Backstrom finally returns.
Here's what we know for sure: the Caps can't afford Backstrom's cap hit with its current lineup. Backstrom is on long-term injured reserve which allows the team to go over the salary cap ceiling based on Backstrom's $9.2 million cap hit. This presents a major obstacle, or at least it would if not for the injury to Anthony Mantha. Mantha is currently on IR after shoulder surgery and all indications are that he is not close to returning. When Backstrom returns Mantha will have to be placed LTIR just to make sure the team stays under the salary cap.
That will give the Caps enough cap room, but not enough roster space, especially with the players on the COVID protocol close to returning. Players who are in the protocol still count against the cap, but not against the 23-man roster maximum. Nic Dowd and Trevor van Riemsdyk both practiced on Monday, but both are still technically in the league protocol as is Garnet Hathaway. If Backstrom returns and Dowd and van Riemsdyk remain in the protocol, this brings the team to 23 players. Great, but that is obviously very temporary and Dowd and van Riemsdyk and even Hathaway are going to return sooner rather than later. That will mean looking at the call-ups and determining who will be sent back to Hershey.
Connor McMichael making the roster initially was a surprise, but he has been with the team the entire season and it seems unlikely he would be headed back to the AHL now. That leaves Aliaksei Protas, Brett Leason, Mike Sgarbossa, Beck Malenstyn, Dennis Cholowski and Matt Irwin as the possible candidates. At least three of those players will have to go to account for Dowd, Hathaway and van Riemsdyk, but general manager Brian MacLellan could elect to send more down.
Both Irwin and Cholowski will have to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL. Considering the team did not attempt to send either to Hershey despite using them sparingly before van Riemsdyk went on the COVID protocol, it is fair to assume there is some worry that either player could be claimed off waivers.
Protas, Leason and Malenstyn are waiver exempt. Sgarbossa is not, but he cleared waivers earlier in the season and has not hit the 30-day or 10-game threshold that would require him to pass through waivers again. All four forwards could be returned to Hershey without having to clear.
This is where things get tricky. There is a case to be made for all four forwards to remain, especially Protas and Malenstyn who have played extremely well. But Backstrom's return and the return of the players off the COVID protocols will make Mantha and Tom Wilson the only regulars not in the lineup and Wilson is considered day-to-day. Do you want to keep young prospects in Washington just to be healthy scratches or do you return players to Hershey who have played well to get more playing time?
My best guess would be that the team holds onto both Cholowski and Irwin and returns Sgarbossa, Leason and Malenstyn. I think Protas stays at least until Wilson returns just so the team can have the option of another big body to plug in if needed.
Here's a look at a possible lineup projection via CapFriendly's armchair GM tool: