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Odd Man Out: Capitals Face Tough Roster Decisions As Stars Get Healthy

After starting the 2022-23 campaign shorthanded, the Washington Capitals are seeing their regulars and stars ramping up for a return. But who will be the odd man out?



ARLINGTON, V.A. — After being shorthanded for a majority of the season, the Washington Capitals are finally starting to get healthy, and it couldn't come at a better time. The Capitals are clicking of late, and stars like Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie returning should provide another boost. However, with those stars' returns also comes difficult roster decisions that have to be made.

There is no longer a cap crunch to worry about when it comes to bringing back Backstrom (Wilson's salary is already going against the cap), as John Carlson and his $8 million cap hit is likely to go on the long-term injured reserve as he remains out following a slapshot to the face (he is already on IR). Carl Hagelin (eye/hip) and Connor Brown (ACL surgery) also remain on the LTIR and are long-shots to return this year.

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Still, there are only 23 roster spots and 12 forwards that can be in the lineup, so there are players that face being moved around, scratched or ultimately on the outs when Backstrom, Wilson and Oshie are all healthy and back in the mix.

But how will everything stack up? Well, here are what the current forward lines look like:

Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Conor Sheary

Sonny Milano-Dylan Strome-Anthony Mantha

Marcus Johansson-Lars Eller-Nicolas Aube-Kubel

Aliaksei Protas-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway

Joe Snively

When Backstrom, Wilson and Oshie return, the formation will change, as Backstrom will go back to a center spot, Oshie will slot in on the second or third-line wing and Wilson will get back in the mix on the top 6. That leaves a lot of interesting decisions to be made.

First, there's Aliaksei Protas. The 21-year-old has three goals and six assists through 39 games this season and has looked good on the fourth line with Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway. However, he is waivers exempt, and sending him down for more ice time and opportunity in Hershey would be a good move for him while also allowing the team to easily open a spot.

Then, it's easy to argue that Joe Snively and Nicolas Aube-Kubel are the most prone to cuts. Though both have shown strong play of late, with Aube-Kubel complementing the third line well and Snively putting on a strong showing against the Montreal Canadiens, they have been healthy scratches for a majority of the time and will be the odd men out again when the stars return. Instead of having them as scratches, the next step would be to waive them (Aube-Kubel himself was a waiver pickup).

Even with three spots open, though, there are still questions. Putting Backstrom back at center would mean there were five centers. While there was speculation that Lars Eller could be the odd man out, Eller has been playing some of his best hockey of late and is strong in the dot, and his third line has generated a lot of chemistry. Plus, Dylan Strome's versatility makes things easier, as he can easily shift to the wing and continue to make an impact.

However, that move would then create an influx of wingers, as Strome would join Wilson and Oshie as extra wingers and make things difficult for names like Sonny Milano, Marcus Johansson and Anthony Mantha.

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Milano has been strong since signing a one-year, $750,000 deal back in October and has 16 points in 26 games. Johansson, meanwhile, has been impressive in terms of production at 5-on-5 and on the power play, and he plays a strong two-way game that benefits the team at both ends. Then, there's Mantha, who has the talent to be a star forward and has nine goals and 12 assists for 21 points in 39 games. However, he hasn't been able to find consistency this season

What it will come down to in the end for the Capitals is performance. Washington is coming off a stellar December that saw the team turn around the season and go from second to last in the Metropolitan Division to third. The Capitals will have star power and reinforcements coming in to keep the good times rolling, but with that being said, the guys who have been in the mix will have to continue working to prove they belong in the lineup night in and night out. That will then determine what will come next for the team, whether it means cuts, demotions or even a trade.

Still, there's time, as Backstrom and Wilson still have work to do before coming back. Oshie could draw back in as soon as Tuesday vs. the Buffalo Sabres but is not on the IR and doesn't require any transactions to return to play (though Aube-Kubel and Snively will likely be scratched with No. 77 back on the third line).

"These are some core pieces to our team, so that's a positive. The fact that guys are getting close, I think that's a positive. It could have a positive effect," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "But again, we're moving, too. We're gonna have to make sure that everybody still looks in the mirror at their job and not the fact that somebody's come back and it's easy street now. We've put in a lot of work. We have to continue to do the work."