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Phillips In, Mantha Out: Predicting Capitals’ Opening Night Roster, Lines



Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) and center Nicklas Backstrom (19) celebrate after a goal during the second period of Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Washington. It was later determined that the goal was scored by Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

There’s t-minus five days before the Washington Capitals host the Pittsburgh Penguins in Friday’s regular season opener, but before that can happen, the team needs to finalize its roster.

Following Saturday night’s preseason finale, the Capitals have until Monday at 5 p.m. to trim their roster — currently at 26 players — down to 23. Cutting Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who spent 53 games with the Capitals last season, was a surprise, and there could be more on the horizon.

Here’s a look at our predictions for the Capitals’ opening night roster and lines.

Line 1: Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Tom Wilson

Headed into this season, there’s something intriguing about pairing Ovechkin with a fully-healthy Backstrom — “Feels like back in the day,” the 35-year-old center said. Based on history, even in their older age, that seems like the right kind of gamble to take. Alongside Tom Wilson, who adds a dash of youth, it’s not a stretch to think that — with everybody healthy — this could be one of the best top lines in the division.

Line 2: Connor McMichael-Evgeny Kuznetsov-TJ Oshie

Connor McMichael has proven this preseason that he is ready to contribute at the NHL level — even if he’s playing away from his natural center position. Is the second line a little high? It’s possible, but outside of Ovechkin the team’s left wing options don’t jump off the page. At least this way he’ll be able to learn from two extremely talented players in Oshie and Kuznetsov as he sees his first substantial NHL action, setting himself up for continued development.

Line 3: Sonny Milano-Dylan Strome-Matthew Phillips

We saw this line a handful of times throughout the preseason, and I came away thoroughly impressed each time. Milano and Strome have obviously secured roster spots, but Phillips — on the bubble — has been effective playing alongside the two of them, tallying three points in the preseason and proving that he belongs in the NHL.

With the undersized Phillips, obviously the concern is that he is more likely to be bullied due to his small frame, limiting his offensive ability. But early (albeit limited) returns show that it hasn’t been much of a factor, and if the Capitals can find a spot for his scoring ability on the roster, they need to.

Line 4: Beck Malenstyn-Nic Dowd-Aliaksei Protas

Dowd will provide stability up the middle alongside two new faces on the wing in Protas and Malenstyn. The pair have long been expected to crack the roster — Brian MacLellan said as much in July — and bring fresh legs to the team’s bottom six.

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson (74) in action during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Pair 1: Rasmus Sandin-John Carlson

The Capitals could do much worse than pairing their top two offensive defensemen in Sandin and Carlson. With Sandin in Washington for a full season and with Carlson healthy, the pair will be critical to the team’s goal-scoring operation.

Pair 2: Martin Fehervary-Nick Jensen

Fehervary and Jensen were among the Capitals’ top three defensemen in blocks last season — a nice change of pace from the offensive abilities of the top pairing.

Pair 3: Hardy Häman Aktell-Trevor van Riemsdyk

Häman Aktell wins the coveted sixth defenseman spot, at least for now. He’s been far and away the most impressive of those in contention this preseason, making it apt to pair him with van Riemsdyk, who has long had a hold on the third line, right defenseman role.

Goalies: Darcy Kuemper-Charlie Lindgren

To be expected as Kuemper enters the second year of the five-year, $26.25 million contract he signed last offseason. He was able to focus on building up his strength and quickness this offseason, hopefully signaling an improvement over his near-disastrous first season in Washington.

One could argue that Hunter Shepard had a chance at the backup job, but with Lindgren entering the second season of a three-year contract, it was always going to be his job.

Extras: Anthony Mantha (F), Alex Alexeyev (D) and Lucas Johansen (D)

Mantha’s struggles in Washington have seemingly continued this preseason — a less than ideal scenario for both sides, especially as Mantha enters a contract year. I think he would be better served in an extras role, placing a little less pressure on him to turn things around. Plus, his versatility in being able to play both wing positions increases the Capitals’ roster flexibility.

Häman Aktell’s experience is limited and, as a late bloomer, it seems best to not fully cement him in that sixth defenseman role — especially when the Capitals have Alexeyev and Johansen. Alexeyev likely has the edge over Johansen, but coming in with two extra defensemen can give the Capitals additional matchup flexibility.

Jared Serre covers the Washington Capitals for Washington Hockey Now. He is a graduate of West Virginia University.