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Projecting Capitals Lines, What New Additions Mean For McMichael, Eller

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Capitals forward Connor McMichael

Once the clock hit 12 p.m. on Wednesday, the Washington Capitals got to work. The team, which had been pretty quiet in free agency over the last two seasons, made somewhat of a splash, bringing in a couple of big names and addressing some glaring needs.

There’s a new tandem in net with Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren replacing Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, and Erik Gustafsson is now on the backend to take over for Justin Schultz on that third pairing. But perhaps even the more interesting changes have come up front.

Washington is dealing with a number of injuries at the moment, with Nicklas Backstrom out indefinitely as he recovers from hip resurfacing surgery. Still, he is adamant that he will return at some point in 2022-23; it’s just unclear when exactly that will be. Then, Tom Wilson is out until at least December as he recovers from ACL surgery, and Carl Hagelin’s NHL future is still in flux as he tries to come back from a ruptured choroid that took away some of his vision and depth perception.

So, to make up for that, the Capitals signed two new forwards in Dylan Strome and Henrik Borgstrom (two-way), traded for RW Connor Brown and re-signed Marcus Johansson. They now have a total of 12 forwards on the roster, and that’s not including Backstrom, Wilson or Hagelin, who are all on the injured reserve, per CapFriendly.

Taking that influx of skaters into account, someone is going to be the odd man out when one of — or a couple or all — of Backstrom, Wilson or Hagelin eventually return. And, from the looks of it, it’s Connor McMichael or Lars Eller.

Sans Backstrom, the team has five centers on the roster: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Strome, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd. Eller is the interesting name in question here; the 33-year-old has one year left on his deal that pays $3.5 million and is coming off an inconsistent, tough season that was plagued by adversity and COVID. Otherwise, Kuznetsov and Dowd have their first and fourth line roles locked down full-time, and Strome, though he has played the wing, cited that he is ready to win face-offs and take on a center role this season. That brings us back to McMichael and Eller.

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McMichael is a rising sophomore and showed flashes of great potential last season. He didn’t shy away from shooting the puck and created some quality chances. However, he struggled defensively at times and was inconsistent while also averaging just 10:28 minutes a night. However, those are of course just parts of being a rookie in the Show, and his immense upside is still here.

Looking at Eller, the 33-year-old is coming off what he called the “most challenging season” of his career yet. He had COVID-19 twice and also suffered bouts of inconsistency as he put up 31 points in 72 games. He has one year left on his deal that pays $3.5 million.

Here’s what the lineup could look like on opening night. Given the team’s need for 12 forwards, McMichael and Eller can both fit in; it’s just a matter of who plays pivot on the third line. There are two potential options.

Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Connor Brown

Anthony Mantha-Dylan Strome-Conor Sheary

Connor McMichael-Lars Eller-T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway

Johansson could fit on that fourth-line wing, as he’s the defensive-minded forward who could do a strong job filling in for Hagelin on that combination. Then there is option B.

Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Connor Brown

Anthony Mantha-Dylan Strome-Conor Sheary

Marcus Johansson-Connor McMichael-T.J. Oshie

Lars Eller-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway

Eller has played on that fourth line before and did play wing a couple of times last season. It’s not the easiest position to transfer to. However, Dowd and Hathaway could make that role easier for him to take on. Meanwhile, on the third line, Johansson could move up to provide two-way support for a young McMichael.

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But et’s imagine at the end of August, the eye doctor clears Hagelin to return. If he’s a full go for 2022-23 — and shows it in camp — there’s an odd man out. And from the way things shake out right now, it’ll either be Eller or McMichael.

And, unless the team can trade Eller, McMichael seems more likely to sit for Washington. Even though No. 24 holds the upper hand in Corsi-for percentage, expected goals-for percentage and scoring chances-for percentage, Eller still brings a lot to the table. The 33-year-old is a physical veteran presence that kills penalties, wins draws and wins puck battles. Plus, having a $3.5 million player as an extra may not be the most logical option.

And, while McMichael has good possession metrics, he still has a lot of room to grow. McMichael can stand to add more strength and improve his two-way play. He also needs to be more aggressive in puck battles and get better defensively. That all comes with time and development.

So, what happens if McMichael is a scratch? As we’ve seen in the past, being a scratch on a nightly basis isn’t productive for any player. No matter what it seems like, those skates don’t mimic full-speed game action. And for a rising sophomore, it’s even less beneficial to have them missing out on opportunities to play and grow through games. Taking that into consideration, a return to Hershey isn’t out of the realm of possibility, since sitting in the Capitals press box doesn’t help his growth.

Then, of course, there are other forwards waiting for their opportunities. Brett Leason and Joe Snively are on one-year deals. Plus, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Aliaksei Protas are looking to fight for a spot. At the end of the day, one-way deals simply reflect salary; they don’t guarantee a full-time NHL spot.

Ultimately, that’s the important lesson going into the season. Nothing is guaranteed, and if McMichael and Eller want that 3C job, they will have to battle it out. And, as we’ve seen before, anything can happen.

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