On Monday, we looked at the possible lineup for the Caps on defense and in net but, let's be honest, that was the easy part. The top four is going to be the same, Braden Holtby is going to start, and the rest is pretty easy to figure out.
Today, we get to the fun part: projecting the offense.
First line: Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Obviously Ovechkin and Backstrom will remain on the top line. The question is whether Oshie or Justin Williams will be on the right. Though there are some from the St. Louis media who are dismissing Oshie as overrated, you cannot look at this in a vacuum, it's about who the player will be lined up with. Oshie had 19 goals and 36 assists last season. He has only cracked 20 goals once in his career, but you don't have to watch him too long to realize the amount of skill he has. Backstrom is a playmaker. He's one of the best in the business at creating opportunities and lead the NHL in assists last season with 60. Adding a player like Oshie to the mix gives him another player to setup. Plus, Oshie will have plenty of room to work with as opposing defenses will be primarily focused on the Great 8. Chris Clark scored 30 goals on a line with Ovechkin and he was not your typical 30-goal scorer. Oshie will thrive on this top line. The team may experiment with Williams as well as they try to get the right fit, especially if Backstrom is out to start the season. As Kuznetsov will likely move up to the top line, the young center may benefit from having a veteran like Williams on the line, but if everyone's healthy, expect to see Oshie on the right.
Second line: Marcus Johansson - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Justin Williams
Kuznetsov had a breakout performance in the playoffs that puts his place in the Caps' lineup in little doubt. With Oshie taking the top spot, that bumps Williams down to the second line. The real question is on the left where I have Marcus Johansson instead of Andre Burakovsky. Johansson finally learned to shoot last season with a career-high 138 shots that not surprisingly resulted in him setting career highs in goals and points. Burakovsky played well in the playoffs, but not well enough to supplant a player Barry Trotz had on the top line by the end of the postseason. General manager Brian MacLellan also hinted that he has more in mind for Burakovsky than playing on the wing. More on that later.
Third line: Stanislav Galiev - Andre Burakovsky - Tom Wilson
We know essentially five of the six players who will be in the top two lines. The only real debate is between Johansson and Burakovsky for the second line. From the third line on down, things are much less clear. Let's start with Burakovsky. My gut reaction was to put him on the second line, but that changed based on what MacLellan said in a conference call with the media at the beginning of August.
"I’ve always thought Burakovsky would be a really good center just because of the skillset he has. We’ve only done it a little bit. To me he could play any position, right wing, center, left wing. He’s just that good."
Granted, MacLellan is not Trotz and it is ultimately up to the head coach to set the lines, but it just goes to show you how the organization sees Burakovsky as a player. Remember that he was a center originally. The team tried to develop both Kuznetsov and Burakovsky at center last year, but it was too much of a strain on the team and Burakovsky moved back to wing. It would not be surprising if he returns to the center this season now with Eric Fehr gone. Based on what Trotz had to say about Wilson, you can pencil him in to the right of Burarkovsky.
"I don’t see [Wilson] as a fourth-line winger for the Washington Capitals. To me he’s better than that."
It's hard to imagine Wilson playing above either Oshie or Williams and if he's not on the fourth line, that only leaves one place for him. Wilson has more skill than we have seen thus far and he needs to get away from the fourth line, agitator mentality. More goals, fewer fights. That means the third line should not be a 'traditional' checking line which, as you can read here in this fantastic article by Stars and Sticks, is ok. The team's offensive depth means that a skilled player is going to fall to this line, better to make it more of a skill line than forcing players not suited for it into a checking line. And, if you're going for pure skill, then a player like Galiev would fit in nicely. After playing two games for the Caps last season, Galiev is expected to challenge for a roster spot this fall. If Burakovsky is indeed moved to the third line, the Caps will need to put players who can score around him. Putting him next to Jay Beagle and Brooks Laich doesn't really help him develop into a playmaking center.
Fourth line: Jason Chimera - Jay Beagle - Brooks Laich
Until MacLellan talked about Burakovsky as a center, I had Beagle pencilled in as the third line center given how well he played last season. He may start the season there with Backstrom's injury, but if Burakovsky moves to the third, that will push Beagle back to the fourth. The wings are largely interchangeable so don't read too far into this, but I anticipate this will be the team's regular lineup. Chimera slid to fourth line last season and he's not getting any younger, he won't be climbing the depth chart anytime soon. He still has enough speed and leadership to contribute so he should be in the lineup more often than not. Laich's position will depend on what happen's at left wing on the third line. If Galiev does not make the roster, that's where I see Laich playing this season. Otherwise he will be relegated to the fourth.
Scratches: Michael Latta, Zach Sill
Latta is someone the Caps will want to get into the lineup fairly frequently, but it's hard to see Trotz putting him in over players like Beagle and Laich. He played in 53 games last season and my guess is that he will play a similar amount this year. Sill was a depth addition this summer and will be ready to step in whenever an injury creeps up or someone moves into Trotz's doghouse.
MORE CAPITALS: Projecting the Caps' lineup: Defense and goaltending