Washington has its top six all but locked in with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. It’s the same top six that led the team to the Stanley Cup in 2018. The bottom six has only a couple of moving pieces — for now.
Lars Eller still will center the third line, with Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik expected to flank him. Ilya Kovalchuk, acquired at the trade deadline, skated on the third line during the playoffs but became an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. He has yet to sign with a team.
On the fourth line, Nic Dowd looks to center Garnet Hathaway and Daniel Sprong, whom the Capitals signed to a two-year, $1.45 million deal.
Those 12 players are all the forwards the Capitals have room for under the salary cap with eight defensemen projected on the roster. If the Capitals decide to go with seven defensemen, the organization has enough cap space to sign only one forward at the league-minimum $700,000.
Another forward option could be Daniel Carr, who signed a one-year, two-way contract with Washington last month. Carr comes from Nashville’s organization and spent most of his time in the American Hockey League last season, tying for 10th in points.
In late September, Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said he was intrigued to see prospect Connor McMichael during training camp. McMichael, Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2019, seems to be a long shot.
“Connor had an excellent year last year. … Curious to see the gains he made strength-wise. The biggest thing for him is to get stronger. I’m curious to see how Connor does,” Mahoney said.
Brian Pinho, who made his NHL debut in the Toronto bubble, and Beck Malenstyn are depth pieces who don’t look to be pushing for a permanent role.
Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson still spearheads the blue line and is expected to be joined on the top pairing by Brenden Dillon. Carlson played the majority of the past two seasons alongside Michal Kempny, who had surgery for a torn Achilles’ in early October. Kempny is expected to miss four to six months and will land on long-term injured reserve to start the season.
With Kempny and his $2.5 million salary cap off the books, the team was able to re-sign Dillon to a four-year, $15.6 million contract and sign right-shot defenseman Justin Schultz to a two-year, $8 million deal. Schultz is expected to play with Dmitry Orlov on the second pairing. On the third pair, Jonas Siegenthaler and Nick Jensen look to be the likely duo, with Trevor van Riemsdyk in the mix.
Siegenthaler re-signed on a one-year, $800,000 deal. He was a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights. Van Riemsdyk, a right shot, also is on a one-year, $800,000 deal and has a Stanley Cup on his résumé. Paul LaDue, another right-shot defenseman, is signed to a one-way deal for one year and $700,000.
Adding LaDue to the other seven defensemen leaves Washington with only $50,000 in cap space and 12 projected forwards on a 22-man roster.
With the blue line looking a bit crowded on the right side, the Capitals could opt to include another forward on the roster and clear up cap space. With the top four set, it’s unclear whether Jensen — and his $2.5 million average annual value for the next three seasons — would be the odd man out, but he certainly will have competition on the third pair.
New assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, who will be in charge of the defensemen, has indicated he wants eight capable defensemen when the season starts. McCarthy also made a point to note his preference for having lefty-righty combinations on his pairings.
Ilya Samsonov is expected to be the starter in net, with Henrik Lundqvist, who signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract on the first day of free agency, serving as his veteran backup.
The 38-year-old Lundqvist has made it clear that he believes he can contribute. Although Samsonov, 23, is expected to be the team’s No. 1, General Manager Brian MacLellan didn’t commit to anything after signing Lundqvist.
“I see it as we’ve got a good young goalie and we’ve got a great experienced goalie,” MacLellan said at the time. “… I would expect [Lundqvist] to come in and compete as hard as he can, and the coaches will make the decision based on how guys are playing and us winning games and what’s been best for our team.”
Samsonov is coming off a solid rookie season, posting a 16-6-2 record with a 2.55 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. At points during the season, he appeared to be pushing former Capitals starter Braden Holtby, who has signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Now it appears Lundqvist will be pushing Samsonov in hopes that both will be able to lead Washington during another unconventional season. With the potential for extra back-to-back games, having two solid goaltenders could be key.
Lundqvist already has made at least one trip to Washington to check out the Capitals’ training facility and explore the area with his family. He also recently posted a video of himself on the ice in Capitals practice gear.
So when will the NHL season even start?
The NHL is targeting a Jan. 1 start date. But that date and the goal of playing a full 82-game season in arenas with fans will be tough to achieve. The AHL announced Wednesday that it is targeting Feb. 5 for its start date. It wouldn’t be surprising to eventually see the NHL start date more closely mirror the AHL season.
The NHL already postponed the 2021 Winter Classic in Minneapolis and the 2021 All-Star Game in South Florida. Both will be pushed to 2022, according to the league.
With the start date up in the air, Capitals players are still scattered across the world, with most not in the Washington area. Informal skates are expected to start before training camp at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, but nothing official has been announced. Players are still training and skating on their own time.
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