The Washington Capitals are going to get star forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson back into their lineup for the first time this season on Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
To make those big moves happen, some tough roster decisions needed to be made, and the Caps will look very different moving forward. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how they could potentially line up now that roster spots have been opened up for Backstrom and Wilson.
First, I’ll try and get into Peter Laviolette’s head and predict what he’ll actually throw out on the ice, at least at the beginning of Backstrom and Wilson being back. It’ll be more “realistic” and factor in Aliaksei Protas being sent to Hershey and Joe Snively being placed on waivers.
Second, I’ll go through the team not taking into account the Capitals sent down Aliaksei Protas and waived Joe Snively. It’ll be what the Caps would look like if Chris Cerullo was playing Franchise Mode on a video game with them. It’ll be a more “for fun” version of the team that still takes into consideration the injury context, the salary cap, and other factors.
Okay, cool. Let’s do this.
Note: The statistical data included in this post comes thanks to Hockey-reference.com and NaturalStatTrick.com.
Projecting what Lavy will do
Scratches: Sonny Milano, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Alex Alexeyev
- Alex Ovechkin has recently been back with Evgeny Kuznetsov on the team’s top line for a handful of games. Could that be because this is the planned top line moving forward and Lavy wanted to give Ovi and Kuzy some game reps together again in preparation? Maybe. Outside of that, it’s a top line that the team has used for over 558 minutes at five-on-five in Lavy’s first two seasons in control of the Caps. It’s an “old faithful” of sorts, they won a Cup with it, and it makes sense to have Wilson come back to some sort of familiarity.
- We’ve been hearing hints since Training Camp that Dylan Strome would at some point probably play on the wing this season. At recent practices, due to Backstrom and Wilson’s involvement, he has skated on the wing during some line rushes. I don’t think he’s leaving the top six unless he’s going back to center so he’s going to be on the left wing of the second line with his left shot where he played some during the preseason. Backstrom and TJ Oshie is a tried and true connection (478 5v5 minutes together since 2020-21) but I could also potentially see Conor Sheary and Oshie flipped here.
- The third line is where I think I could end up being most wrong. I haven’t been able to get too good of a read on what Lavy truly thinks of Marcus Johansson due to the barrage of injuries. If it’s Kuznetsov or Strome that gets moved off of the first power play unit in favor of Backstrom, then I think Johansson is for sure staying in. If it’s Johansson that leaves that man-advantage group maybe the hot stick of Sonny Milano and his even-strength production gets to stay in the lineup. I don’t think Lars Eller is going anywhere just yet.
- Anthony Mantha’s default position is going to be on the left wing of that fourth line which would be absolutely bizarre to hear a few months ago. I think they’ve tried that over the past couple of games for a reason and Mantha is the best defensive fit on that super defensively deployed checking line with the way Laviolette has set things up. Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway are just inseparable.
- Finally, Matt Irwin is one of Lavy’s favorites and he really has done pretty much everything that has been asked of him so he stays in. That sixth defenseman spot is really the only one on the backend worth any conversation due to John Carlson’s long-term injury.
What Chris would do
Scratches: Marcus Johansson, Lars Eller, Matt Irwin
- As you can immediately tell, my fantasy Caps roster has seen both Joe Snively and Nicolas Aube-Kubel waived. NAK has provided something different in the Caps’ lineup but that’s just because Wilson wasn’t in it. Snively needs to go somewhere and play. Whether that be on Hershey’s top line or somewhere else in the NHL where there is less high-end talent blocking him.
- I would stick with the first line that has produced fantastic results in their 237 minutes together this season and has simply kept Alex Ovechkin in the offensive zone more often than not. With Ovi, Dylan Strome, and Conor Sheary on the ice this season at five-on-five, the Caps get 50.6 percent of the shot attempts, 57 percent of the expected goals, 53.4 percent of the scoring chances, and 57.5 percent of the high-danger chances. Don’t go away from that while it’s working.
- If Anthony Mantha is going to play up to his salary and up to what the stats behind his play this season say, he needs to do it with more of the team’s top-end offensive talent. He’s an excellent defensive winger, as is Wilson, which pairs well with Kuznetsov’s deficiencies. Since acquiring Mantha, the Caps see almost 54 percent of the expected goals when he is on the ice at five-on-five with Kuznetsov. It’s a pairing that works.
- I am team Sonny Milano all the way. Among all NHL forwards who have played at least 200 minutes at five-on-five this season, Milano ranks 24th in total points per 60 minutes. I think he’d be an extremely great fit next to a healthy Backstrom and would provide a nice speed component to the more cerebral Backstrom and Oshie duo. Both Marcus Johansson and Lars Eller sat for me. If you could combine both players at this stage of their careers into one, you’d have a great player. They just don’t do enough individually right now.
- Aliaksei Protas goes absolutely nowhere if I’m in charge. He’s formed a true force of nature fourth line with Hathaway and Dowd. First, I’m going to list the areas of the ice and the number of occurrences this line has taken faceoffs in those areas this season. They’ve taken 118 defensive zone faceoffs, 75 neutral zone faceoffs, and just 16 offensive zone faceoffs in over 193 minutes of five-on-five ice time. For some lines, those numbers would indicate that they are terrible and get hemmed in their own zone a lot. It’s the opposite case here as these three have been deployed to start the vast majority of their shifts outside of the offensive zone and against the opponent’s top lines. And the numbers they’ve put up in those minutes? 54.8 percent of the shot attempts, 63.3 percent of the expected goals, 57.9 percent of the scoring chances, and 61 percent of the high-danger chances.
- Lastly, I’d just play Alex Alexeyev because I think he needs consistent minutes as a younger defenseman. He didn’t hurt the team when he played. Neither has Matt Irwin but when I can sprinkle youth into the Caps lineup, I’m going to do so.
Okay, so now you have my thoughts on what I think Lavy will do and what I would do. We’ll see how well I did when the puck drops at 5 pm on Sunday night.
Now, what would you do if you were in charge? Post your mock lineups in the comments.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB