Predicting the 2011-12 Washington Capitals Opening Night Lineup
Entering the 2011-12 NHL Season, the Washington Capitals have arguably the most talented roster in franchise history, as the team has depth, experience and skill at every position like never before.
Ultimately, the Capitals have so many NHL-ready players that there will be some heated battles for roster spots when the team's Training Camp opens in September, with a number of spots in the lineup open for the taking.
With that in mind, here's an early look at what the team's lineup will look like when the Capitals open the season at the Verizon Center on October 8th against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Back-Up Goaltender- Michal Neuvirth
No player's role with the Capitals has changed more since the end of last season than 2010-11 starting goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who lead the Capitals to the second round during his rookie season.
Though Neuvirth was solid in between the pipes for Washington, when Tomas Vokoun fell into General Manager George McPhee's lap on the second day of Unrestricted Free Agency, the Capitals had no choice but to sign the 35-year old to a bargain-bin contract of $1.5 million for one year.
While Vokoun will go into camp as the team's leading man in the crease, Neuvirth could potentially supplant him as the starter if he outplays his fellow Czech native down the stretch.
At just 23, Neuvirth is likely the Capitals' goaltender of the not-so-distant future, but for the time being, Vokoun has to be considered the team's number one option in net.
Starting Goaltender- Tomas Vokoun
The biggest loser, at least from a financial standpoint, of free agency this summer was Tomas Vokoun, who went from being one of the most coveted targets on the market to an afterthought within a matter of hours on July 1st.
Vokoun's loss turned out to be Washington's gain as the team grabbed a bona fide starting netminder for an unthinkably low price on July 2nd.
The 35-year old Czech has the best save percentage of any goaltender since the lockout, though he's played on some dreadful Florida Panthers teams, which indicates he's likely the Capitals' best goaltender since Olaf Kolzig's days as an All-Star during the late 1990's and early 2000's.
Whether Vokoun remains a Capital beyond this season has a lot to do with how he performs during the Postseason, but he's far and away the team's most proven option in net going into the 2011-12 season.
Third Defensive Pairing- Jeff Schultz and Dennis Wideman
Earlier in his career, Jeff Schultz was an effective partner for the offensively-minded Mike Green, as he's a garden variety stay-at-home defenseman.
Now that Roman Hamrlik is a member of the Capitals, Schultz will likely be moved down the depth chart, where he'll find himself next to another puck-moving rearguard in Dennis Wideman.
Wideman is a proven point producer, capable of scoring 50 points, so Schultz should be the perfect foil for him.
While they may not see the minutes that they did a couple of seasons ago, they give the Capitals some nice depth on the back end, and both Wideman and Schultz are capable of playing roles on Washington's special teams units.
Second Defensive Pairing- Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik
On paper, Roman Hamrlik is an ideal partner for Mike Green, who enters the season as the Capitals' best offensive threat from the blue line.
That's because Hamrlik is a smart, conservative defenseman who plays a solid two-way game, and uses his 6'2", 225 pound frame when necessary.
Green isn't an overly physical defenseman, but he uses his speed to compensate for what he lacks in terms of size. Conversely, Hamrlik isn't the quickest skater, but his imposing frame allows him to keep opposing forwards out of shooting lanes, just as he did when he helped shut down Alex Ovechkin and the Caps' high-flying offense during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Though they enter the season as the Capitals' second defensive pairing, there's no question that this unit could end up being Washington's most effective duo by season's end.
In addition to what they bring to the table in their own end, both are capable of scoring from the point. Green's scoring abilities are well-documented, but Hamrlik is no slouch offensively either, as he regularly posts 30-35 points a season.
First Defensive Pairing- Karl Alzner and John Carlson
This one's a no-brainer, as John Carlson and Karl Alzner emerged as the Capitals' top pairing over the course of the 2010-11 Season, and cemented their place at the top of the depth chart with a dominant performance during the first round of the 2011 Playoffs against New York.
They are perfect compliments for one another, as Carlson's strengths are virtual opposites to that of Alzner. Carlson is an offensive rearguard who is more than capable of jumping up into the rush, which is why he posted 37 points as a rookie in 2010-11, along with seven points in his first 16 playoff appearances.
Alzner is a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman, who uses his superb skating and positional play to keep attackers at bay. His conservative game is the yin to Carlson's yang, and the two appear poised to be Washington's top defensive unit for years to come.
While Green and Hamrlik may end up carrying more of the weight offensively, this pairing will be relied upon to keep the opposition's top line in check, which is ultimately the most important role a defenseman can play in the NHL.
Fourth Line- Matt Hendricks, Jeff Halpern and Mattias Sjogren
This line is the biggest wild card of all in the Capitals lineup, because there are simply so many candidates who could fill a fourth line role for Washington heading into Training Camp.
The two virtual locks to be on the Caps' opening night roster are Matt Hendricks and Jeff Halpern, as each has proven that they're capable of being great energy players on good teams. Halpern, who served as the team's captain during his last stint in D.C., is a solid bottom-six center who will be more than a serviceable replacement for Boyd Gordon and David Steckel.
Hendricks became a fan favorite last season due to his willingness to drop the gloves and generally do whatever the team asked of him in order to win.
As for the third member of this line, smart money has to be on Swedish Free Agent signee Mattias Sjogren, who has been a solid two-way centerman in the Swedish Elite League for a couple of seasons.
Though Sjogren would be playing the wing for the first time in his career, it would allow Washington to gauge his talent level, and see if he may be able to step into a third line role later in the season.
If he's not the man head coach Bruce Boudreau wants in this spot, Jay Beagle may be the next in line to get an audition.
Third Line- Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward
The Capitals have a number of forwards capable of playing top-six roles on the team, but Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward would be a downright scary checking line, possibly even the best in the league.
Laich is a heart-and-soul type of pivot, who can hit, score and skate as well as any third line forward in the National Hockey League, and his presence on this line would ensure that the Caps could send out three different lines that are capable of scoring on any given shift.
Chimera is a speed demon who creates chances by chasing down defensemen, or burning them on the outside with his breathtakingly fast feet. What he lacks for in hands he makes up for with his aggression, speed and desire, which is why he was one of Washington's most valuable forwards during the 2011 Postseason.
As for Ward, the Capitals picked up a key Free Agent when they signed Nashville's 2011 Playoff hero to a three-year deal on July 1st. Ward is smart and fast enough to shut down the opposition's top scoring threats, and he proved this spring that he's also capable of scoring when given the opportunity.
If this line looks even half as good on the ice as it does on paper, Washington will be a very difficult team to play against in 2012.
Second Line- Alexander Semin, Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer
With the addition of Troy Brouwer, the Capitals have found the perfect compliment for Marcus Johansson and Alexander Semin on the second line, as he brings the physical presence and grit that his two linemates lack.
Brouwer is capable of scoring (he has 39 goals in his last two seasons), and would create space for his two highly skilled linemates with his big frame and hard-charging style.
Last season, no Capitals rookie raised more eyebrows down the stretch than Marcus Johansson, who was one of the team's most consistent performers in big games. After a 27-point rookie campaign, the speedy Swede notched six points in nine Playoff games, solidifying himself as a top-nine center on a stacked Caps squad.
Alexander Semin enters the season with a lot of question marks next to his name, especially after Matt Bradley publicly criticized Semin for his lack of effort during the Playoffs, so he should be ready to prove doubters wrong with a 35-40 goal campaign. If not, he'll be involved in countless trade rumors as the season moves on.
This line has all the pieces in place to be an elite level scoring unit, especially if Semin learns to use his teammates a little bit better. Brouwer could score 25 if his linemates are playing up to their potential, and if this trio gets rolling, the Capitals offensive output will be closer to that of 2009-10, when they lead the league in goals.
First Line- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble
Assuming Boudreau opts to keep the Capitals' premier scoring line together for a third consecutive season, Washington's top offensive unit will again feature Nicklas Backstrom between Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble.
In the past, this line has been dominant at times, as the veteran Knuble's work in the corners and in front of the net is a nice compliment for Backstrom's playmaking abilities and Ovechkin's knack for getting into scoring areas, but they've struggled to be consistent for the last year.
If Ovechkin and Backstrom have bounce-back seasons, Knuble will be once again a 20-goal man, and all three will have vastly superior numbers compared to their performances in 2010-11.
Backstrom seemed to lose confidence towards the end of the season, and was invisible during the Postseason, but he's perfectly capable of regaining his status as a 100-point scorer in this league.
While Boudreau will without a doubt tinker with the top three lines if this unit struggles early, he has to at least give them an opportunity to regain the chemistry they demonstrated in 2009-10, because the results were downright scary.