December 16, 2019

Comparing lineups: have the Caps gotten better?

Caps during National Anthem - Washington Capitals home opener against Montreal featuring 40th Anniversary cermony, 10/09/2014 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Caps during National Anthem – Washington Capitals home opener against Montreal featuring 40th Anniversary cermony, 10/09/2014 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz era has officially begun for the Washington Capitals as the team looks to put a lackluster 2013 campaign behind them.

MacLellan began that process in the offseason with several key acquisitions. The opening night roster is about as close as you can get to seeing a general manager’s vision as there are fewer injuries and politics that dictate shifts in line combinations. To see if the teams has improved and by how much, let’s compare this season’s opening night roster to last season’s.

2013 opening night lineup:

Forwards:
Johansson-Backstrom-Ovechkin
Laich-Grabovski-Brouwer
Chimera-Fehr-Ward
Erat-Latta-Wilson

Defense:
Alzner-Green
Erskine-Carlson
Hillen-Carrick

Goalies:
Holtby, Neuvirth

Healthy scratches:
Aaron Volpatti, Jay Beagle and Steve Oleksy

2014 opening night lineup:

Forwards:
Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr
Johansson-Burakovsky-Brouwer
Chimera-Laich-Ward
O’Brien-Kuznetsov-Brown

Defense:
Orpik-Carlson
Alzner-Niskanen
Hillen-Schmidt

Goalies:
Holtby, Peters

Healthy scratch:
Erskine

Injuries:
Latta, Beagle, Wilson, Green, Volpatti, Orlov

One thing to note — the biggest change on this team is not in the lineup, but behind the bench. If you did not realize by the end of last season that Adam Oates was out of his element behind the bench, you just weren’t paying attention.

Trotz is a proven winner who did more with less for 15 seasons in Nashville. He is a clear upgrade at coach and that will be reflected on the ice.

But what does he have to work with?

In net, the Caps have a clear hierarchy for the first time since Olaf Kolzig. Braden Holtby will be given the opportunity to lead the Caps as their clear number one. The team’s goalie rotation proved in recent years to be a burden on the netminders as neither could establish themselves as an NHL starter. The situation really exploded last season when Philipp Grubauer was recalled from Hershey and, when Michal Neuvirth had recovered from an injury, the team inexplicably carried three healthy goaltenders.

That won’t happen this season. Justin Peters is a very capable backup, but he is backup.

The most offseason changes for the Caps came on defense, where the team brought in veteran blueliners Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. It is absolutely fair to be critical of the long term impact of these two new contracts, but in terms of the short term gain, you cannot deny that the Caps are better defensively.

It is important to note that the third pairing, Jack Hillen and Nate Schmidt, are merely placeholders for Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov. Indeed, Green replaced Hillen in the lineup in the team’s second game and you can expect Orlov to take the place of Schmidt when he returns. That gives a lineup of:

Orpik-Carlson

Alzner-Niskanen

Orlov-Green

That alignment puts Hillen and John Erskine as scratches and Schmidt back in Hershey. Even if you don’t like the contracts of Orpik and Niskanen, no one could argue that the Caps are not better and deeper on defense than last season.

The depth of the team now allows Erskine to go from the top four to the number seven. Erskine provides grit and experience, but he should not be an everyday player, let alone in the top four. Being the number seven defenseman is right where he needs to be.

The offense is a bit harder to figure out. Clearly this lineup is temporary because Evgeny Kuznetsov is on the fourth line and their are too many bodies to keep this lineup intact.

Chris Brown, Michael Latta, Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti will cycle through the fourth line and one of them will most likely have to be sent to Hershey as well, either Brown or Latta. Liam O’Brien is a great story, but he might as well pack now for Hershey.

Volpatti will almost certainly be a depth/healthy scratch player once he’s healthy. It is hard to believe he will see much ice time this season if he’s not waived altogether due to roster size.

What is really difficult to figure out is where Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov fit into the roster. While it is important for Kuznetsov to learn to play center, a player of his talent will not be relegated to the fourth line for a bulk of the season. The question then becomes whether Trotz wants to keep him in the middle or if he would be willing to move him to the wing.

Kuznetsov could take Brooks Laich’s spot as the third line center or, given that just two games into the season Trotz has already indicated he wants to see more from Marcus Johansson, he could move to left wing on the second line.

Wilson has been projected to go anywhere from the top line all the way down to Hershey. The AHL is at least an option this year for Wilson as his contract no longer dictates he go back to the OHL if he is not with the NHL squad. As surprising as that may seem, Hershey is a real possibility at least for a rehab stint if not longer.

If Trotz wants to make room for him, it will be on the right of either the top two lines. Jason Chimera and Joel Ward clearly work well together on the third line and Wilson is not going back to the fourth line for eight minutes a night like last season.

For those of you doing the math in your head, you see the problem. There are simply too many players, particularly in the top nine. If the Caps keep both Hillen and Erskine, then that leaves room for only one healthy scratch on offense and even then it means keeping a player like Kuznetsov or Wilson on the fourth line. That makes some type of trade a real possibility, as does waiving Volpatti.

Comparing this lineup to last season’s is difficult given that there are clearly still moves to be made, but there are a few things to note. First, there are no players in lineup limbo as Wilson and Martin Erat were. That will mean a healthier locker room.

Ovechkin has also reverted back to his natural side. The captain may have enjoyed an offensive renaissance under Oates, but that came as a result of the improved power play where he reverted back to his natural left side.

The major personnel changes are the additions of Andre Burakovsky and Kuznetsov. So far so good for Burakovsky who has three points in two games. Kuznetsov has one, but it is only a matter of time before he moves somewhere into the top nine and gets more playing time.

It seems a bit early to declare the Caps’ lineup better offensively given the young players and pending lineup changes, but there is certainly less tension between coach and players and for more potential from the young playmakers.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He also is a college football and NHL blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com and has a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University. Regan follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Washington Capitals are well on their way in the 2014-15 season.  They are looking to rebound from a less than optimal performance from last years missed playoffs.  They have upgraded their line-up to a point as well as their coach behind the bench.  Where were they last year in comparison to where they are at right now.  What did their starting line ups look like and is there an upgrade to be found? [District Sports Page] […]

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