How will the Capitals look on Opening Night?

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 06: Tom Wilson #43 of the Washington Capitals controls the puck against Brandon Carlo #25 of the Boston Bruins during the second period of the preseason game at TD Garden on October 06, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

With just one preseason game remaining, Washington’s lines are starting to come into focus and it’s time to make projections for how the Capitals will look on opening night. Here is how the team should look when the puck drops on October 13th against the Rangers.

Left WingCenterRight Wing
OvechkinKuznetsovWilson
ManthaEllerSprong
ShearyMcMichaelOshie
HagelinDowdHathaway
Left DefenseRight Defense
OrlovCarlson
KempnySchultz
FehervaryJensen
Goalie
Samsonov
Vanecek

Center

One of the hottest topics of debate during the offseason was what Washington will do with Connor McMichael. Rated as the franchise’s top prospect, McMichael excelled during his first season in the AHL, leading the Hershey Bears in points.

Heading into preseason, I expected McMichael to slide into the 3rd line center role while Nicklas Backstrom sits out with a nagging hip injury. However, the emergence of Hendrix Lapierre has made this a true competition. 

Lapierre leads the team in points this preseason, including a beautiful stretch pass to T.J. Oshie for a goal against the New Jersey Devils. Lapierre’s five assists are tied for third in the NHL.

Despite those efforts, I expect McMichael to win the job. Chalk it up to giving the edge to the slightly more experienced player.

Kuznetsov and Eller will see an increased role in Backstrom’s absence. This is a chance for Kuzy to show last season will not be repeated.

Left Wing

No unexpected changes here with Ovechkin continuing to wreak havoc on the top line. Anthony Mantha was the big trade deadline acquisition last year so the expectations are high for his first full season as a Cap. 

Conor Sheary received a two-year contract extension last season thanks to a performance indicative of Laviolette’s style of play. Similar to Mantha, fans should expect more out of Sheary this year. Carl Hagelin still skates kind of fast, that’s about it.

Right Wing

All eyes will be on Tom Wilson for the first game. Wilson’s reputation across the league was a common discussion topic last season, especially against the Rangers. The odds of Wilson dropping the gloves should be high.

Because we can expect either McMichael or Lapierre to earn the 3rd line center role, this means we should see Oshie drop to the 3rd line as well. His veteran leadership is needed to guide either youngster through the beginning of the season.

Moving Oshie down means someone is moving up and that will be Daniel Sprong. After making great strides in relief roles last season, Sprong has a chance to prove he belongs in the top six.

Garnet Hathaway returns to the fourth line with his podcast buddy in Dowd. Known for his physical play, Hathaway continues to be a trusted fourth-liner for Laviolette.

Left Defense

There are a lot of question marks on the left side of the defense for Washington. Can Dmirty Orlov emerge as a top defenseman? How impactful could Michal Kempny be after so many injuries? Is Martin Fehervary really ready for the NHL?

Those questions haven’t been answered in the preseason and I wouldn’t expect an answer in October. Hopefully the reliability on the right side can balance out the inconsistency I expect on the left. We’ll see a lot of Trevor Van Riemsdyk early this season as a fill in for either a worn down Kempny or an inexperienced Fehervary.

Right Defense

Steady as she goes on the right side with John Carlson, Justin Schultz and Nick Jensen expected to fill out that end. Carlson will continue his pursuit of that elusive Norris Trophy.

Shultz showed a lot of promise when he was healthy, registering 24 assists. But injuries were a factor last year and he’s not getting any younger. Jensen’s average ice time has improved in each of his three seasons in Washington, a sign that the organization likes him and that should continue again this year.

Goalie

Ilya Samsonov raised concerns last season with numerous missed games for violating covid protocols and team rules. Those concerns intensified with the impressive performance from Vitek Vanencek. So impressive, Vanecek was taken by the Seattle Kraken in their expansion draft, before Washington sent a second-round pick to reacquire him.

Samsonov will get the nod to start the season but I expect him to be on a short leash, both on and off the ice.

Overall, this is a lineup that will see small changes throughout the first month of the season. Sprong, Oshie, Mantha and Sheary could be shuffled around while Laviolette looks for the perfect combination. Safe to say that how the Capitals look on opening night surely won’t be how they look a month later.

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