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WHN Mailbag: Are Capitals Done? Look at Lineup, Backstrom, Eller Futures



Capitals forward Lars Eller

In just 48 hours, the Washington Capitals went from several voids in the lineup to plenty of depth across the board as they kicked off 2022 NHL Free Agency with a bang.

Not only did Washington go for a complete overhaul in net, bringing in Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren to replace Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, but the team made upgrades on the forward lines and blue line.

With Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and potentially Carl Hagelin out for the long haul, the Capitals inked Dylan Strome and Henrik Borgstrom to contracts, re-signed Marcus Johansson, and also acquired Connor Brown. In addition, Washington added Erik Gustafsson and Lucas Carlsson on defense while also extending Matt Irwin.

Taking all those moves into account, there are still questions with regard to what the lineup will look like and how everything will play out in 2022-23. So, we opened the WHN Mailbag to answer some of those burning Q’s. With the influx of responses we got — thank you so much, readers — we’re going to split this WHN Mailbag into two parts. So, let’s get down to business with Part 1.

Editor’s Note: Some questions have been edited for clarity.

@ivancapsrock – What is your opinion on the Capitals line-up with Brown, Strome and Gustafsson joining? Where do the new acquisitions fit into the lineup?

I think that Washington did a solid job of bringing in some top-6 depth and getting some full-time NHLers to help fill some of the voids. Brown is a great addition and a top-6 contributor capable of 20-goal campaigns. Also, he is tenacious on pucks and a top penalty killer, and as he said, he brings a little bit of everything. With Wilson out, he is the perfect fill-in, and I expect him to take over for No. 43 on that top line and also take over his role on the PK.

As for Strome, he’s a 25-year-old and still very much on the rise with plenty of upside. He is coming off a bounceback year with the Chicago Blackhawks and showed flashes of that greatness that made him the third-overall pick in 2015. Strome brings plenty to the table for the Capitals, including playmaking ability, help on the power play, and the ability to win face-offs. I see him slotting in for Nicklas Backstrom at second-line center, but the team also pointed out he can play on the wing if need be.

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When it comes to Johansson and Borgstrom, I see Johansson filling in for Hagelin as the strong defensive forward and two-way presence on that powerhouse fourth line with Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd. Also, I could see him on the third line wing if need be, or if Peter Laviolette prefers Conor Sheary, who has proven chemistry on the fourth line, in that 4LW spot. Borgstrom is on a two-way deal, and I see him as a 13th forward or in Hershey, and that all depends on his training camp performance.

General manager Brian MacLellan said that he sees Gustafsson on the third pairing. He can fill in for Justin Schultz, who was a staple on the team’s backend for the last two seasons, as a puck-mover and steady presence to complement Trevor van Riemsdyk. Meanwhile, this allows TVR to return to his natural right side.

It’s not a guaranteed spot, though, and he’ll face competition. Lucas Johansen is looking to make the NHL jump, and the 6-5 Carlsson will also want to try and earn an NHL stay. Meanwhile, Irwin will be looking for more game action after lacing ’em up just 17 times last season.

@GMUHockeyScout – What changed for the Capitals, who are now $6 million over the cap after they had been adamant about “filling from within.” Does this mean Nicklas Backstrom won’t be back?

Well, free agency happened. Things change, especially when RFAs don’t get qualifying offers and other names end up on the market (i.e. Strome). Plus, Brown’s availability also appealed to Washington when MacLellan had heard he was up for grabs.

On the Backstrom front, there hasn’t been a clear update on his timetable. He is out indefinitely following hip resurfacing surgery — a procedure that not many have played again after — but intends to return at some point in 2022-23. When that is, we don’t know. Given his mentality and will to win and compete, I expect him to try to play again. I don’t think he is the kind of guy to let an injury end his career.

So yes, injured reserve space is what’s going to work for now. Wilson is still on track to return in December, and we’ll get an update on Hagelin in August. In the meantime, that LTIR space is what will help Washington exceed the cap. And, if they end up missing Backstrom throughout the season, having him back for the playoffs a-la Tampa Bay will be the likely choice.

@Robostop10 – Can the Capitals afford to add Kadri, Neiderreiter, Subban or Clendening?

What’s interesting about this right now is this isn’t just a question of cap space; in fact, it may even be more so a question of roster space rather than just cap space. Salary wise? No, Washington is already $6 million over the cap, and the team still needs to account for some players’ return this season at some point. Space wise? Definitely no.

The team has an influx of forwards right now and too many cooks in the kitchen for the Capitals (they are at 12 forwards without their injured players, and 15 if those LTIR names do return at some point. Not only that, those names are not necessary at this point. Strome is the second-line center as of right now. Niederreiter just signed with the Nashville Predators, but there would be no urgent need for him if he was still on the market. Then, when it comes to P.K. Subban and Adam Clendening, Washington now has nine defensemen in the running for six spots next year, and most are capable of full-time NHL stays.

@asteadydecline_ – Thoughts on pulling in a big piece to replace Backstrom?

As stated above, there’s not really a need or the space with the influx of forwards, so not that I can see. And yes, the surgery is tough to come back from, but he is quite determined to return. And given Backstrom’s dedication, I see him at least trying.

@Douglas_Forsyth – With signing Strome and Brown to $7.1 million, what happens when Wilson and Backstrom come back. Won’t that mess up the cap?

If both come back, then yes, the Capitals will have to make space and likely trade away some of their pieces.

@JosephSzymanski – Any rumors around moving out a bottom-6 guy, specifically Lars Eller?

Given the current situation and injured names, I don’t suspect that the team is actively shopping Lars Eller as of this moment, but that’s just my gut. Still, given the circumstances pointed out above, I could see him moving depending on if Connor McMichael outplays him for the 3C and when some of those injured names are ready to return given his $3.5 million cap hit.