How will Caps fill their final roster spot?

How will Caps fill their final roster spot?
July 26, 2014, 9:30 am
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Aiming high... Nathan Walker is hoping to become the first Australian drafted into the NHL.

(Ken Irwin)

Back on July 1, when the Capitals addressed their needs on the blue line and between the pipes with the free-agent signings of defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen and goaltender Justin Peters, it appeared their roster was set for the start of 2014-15 season.

But is it?

After eating up $12.2 million of cap space with those three signings, the Caps now have roughly $1.1 million of available cap space, which is an ideal cushion heading into an 82-game season.

Friday’s signing of Australian forward Nathan Walker [read more about him here] to a three-year, entry-level contract [$575,000  NHL cap hit, $70,000 AHL salary] brought the Capitals’ overall roster to 49 players, one short of the NHL limit.

The Caps now have 21 players [11 forwards, eight defensemen, 2 goalies] on one-way, NHL contracts [one short of the NHL limit] and 28 players [14 forwards, 9 defensemen, 5 goalies] on two-way deals. They still need to make a decision on defenseman Cam Schilling, who played 70 games for the Hershey Bears and one game for the Caps last season but remains unsigned. 

Which means, unless they sign Schilling or trade someone off their current roster, the Caps have one bullet left in their chamber,

That, too, is a good thing heading into an 82-game season, allowing general manager Brian MacLellan to add a player without removing one.

The question hanging over the Capitals is whether they stand pat between now and the start of training camp on Sept. 18, or make a deal to fortify a team that missed the playoffs by three points last season.

Before answering that question let’s take a look at the Caps’ possible lineup to start the season, factoring in Evgeny Kuznetsov [who reportedly is already back in D.C. to begin workouts] at second-line center:

Forward Lines

Brooks Laich - Nicklas Backstrom - Alex Ovechkin

Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Troy Brouwer

Jason Chimera – Eric Fehr – Joel Ward

Aaron Volpatti – Jay Beagle - Tom Wilson

Extras: Any combination of Michael Latta, Chris Brown, Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson

Defense Pairings

Brooks Orpik – John Carlson

Matt Niskanen – Mike Green

Karl Alzner – Dmitry Orlov

Extras: Any combination of Jack Hillen, John Erskine, Connor Carrick

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby – Justin Peters

When looking at that lineup it becomes evident [although not abundantly clear] that the Capitals’ weakness at the forward position might not be down the middle -- where they have the option of using Johansson on the second line and Laich on the third line – but at left wing, where Laich and Johansson would be playing out of their natural positions.

Is it possible the Capitals tried using Burakovsky at center during rookie camp because they intend to try him there in training camp?

If so, are they thinking about using Kuznetsov as a first- or second-line left wing?

And wouldn’t the whole idea of getting Tom Wilson more ice time be easily solved by moving Alex Ovechkin back to the left side?

Once the Caps determine how they’ll look down the middle, they’ll be better able to identify if they need to add depth at left wing or center.

Among unsigned free agents, feisty left winger Daniel Carcillo remains available after getting to the Conference Finals in three of his previous five seasons with the Flyers, Blackhawks and Rangers. He’s a handful to play against but walks a fine line between playing within the rules and getting himself suspended.

At center, the very talented Saku Koivu remains unsigned, but at 39 his future in the NHL remains in doubt.

Antoine Vermette, an edgy 32-year-old center who has another year left on a contract with the Anaheim Ducks that pays him $3.75 million, could be a good fit in Washington, but the Caps would need to move salary to get him.

With more than seven weeks to go before training camp it will be interesting to see if the Caps fill that final roster spot or enter camp with a bullet in their chamber.