For General Manager Brian MacLellan, the third-line center position foremost came to mind. Andre Burakovsky, Brooks Laich, Jay Beagle, Michael Latta and Derek Roy are expected to receive looks there during training camp, though Nicklas Backstrom’s surgically repaired hip – which increasingly appears will sideline him beyond the regular-season opener – might create a trickle-down effect.
“I think we need someone to step up and play really well in that spot,” MacLellan said. “We have a number of candidates who can, and Barry and the coaching staff have a decision to make, what we want that line to look like too.
“There’s the possibility of having three scoring lines, there’s a possibility of having a checking line, there’s the possibility of changing it. I think we need to look at the different combinations and make a decision based on them.”
After MacLellan signed Justin Williams to a two-year deal on July 1, traded for T.J. Oshie the next evening and declared Tom Wilson a candidate for a bump onto the third line, the Capitals’ three top-nine right wingers appear set.
The left side, at least below captain Alex Ovechkin, is more uncertain. Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson figure to challenge for the second-line left wing role next to center Evgeny Kuznetsov, though Trotz has hinted that Burakovsky will likely open training camp down the middle. Laich and Jason Chimera can play either wing in the bottom six, and Beagle, Roy and Latta are all versatile enough to flip positions as necessary. Throw in depth candidates such as Stanislav Galiev, Chris Brown and Liam O’Brien jockeying for position, and the Capitals will have options on the wing, leaving Trotz able to judge based on merit alone.
“There’s a little bit of a battle there along the left side, but they’re all pretty good players,” Trotz said. “We’ll try to make the 12 best guys out there, because we have a lot of guys who can move from one side to the other.”
On defense, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov hold the inside track at nabbing the Nos. 5 and 6 spots, but Taylor Chorney signed a one-way contract this summer and Ryan Stanton spent the past two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, without any reassignments to the minor leagues. And inside the crease, the Capitals have been insisting the backup job behind Braden Holtby is up for grabs between Philipp Grubauer and Justin Peters.
“Grubauer’s an unproven,” MacLellan said. “He’s done well at the American League level, played a couple good games up top, then Justin had a tough year. He didn’t get in games as much because of the workload that Braden had. So I think we’re a little insecure with both. Justin should bounce back and we get to see what Grubauer can do here in training camp.”
Though the Capitals will likely sniff the salary cap ceiling once training camp ends, depending on whether Roy signs a contract beyond his professional tryout agreement, MacLellan did not rule out the possibility of exploring another addition.
“I don’t think you’re really ever done,” he said. “You’re always looking for ways to upgrade. We’ll see how it goes here in camp. Usually at the end of camp, you start talking to managers about possible holes or possible guys they’re trying to move. Then we’ll take a look at those discussions and who’s available and make decisions based on that. If we think they’re better than our guys, we’ll make a move.”
Of course, Trotz noted, someone could emerge from nowhere, much like undrafted free agent Liam O’Brien did last fall, when the 19-year-old stuck around long enough to earn a starting spot on opening night.
“I don’t know who this year’s surprise is,” Trotz said, “but there will be [one].”