- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Capitals’ lineup will look a bit different next season. And that’s not just because they have a new goalie in net. Mainstays like Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, for example, are recovering from serious injuries. Wilson, with an ACL tear, is on track to return in December. Backstrom, who had another hip surgery, could be a lot longer than that.

Washington general manager Brian MacLellan knew the team would have to get by without them in the meantime. That’s why he traded for winger Connor Brown and signed center Dylan Strome in free agency, along with re-upping winger Marcus Johansson.

The additions, though, may be more than stopgap solutions. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, MacLellan indicated that Brown (28) and Strome (25) are still young enough that they could play their way into being part of Washington’s future.

At the very least, their arrivals add an interesting wrinkle.

“Our lineup is going to have a lot of options for the coaches to use,” MacLellan said. “It’s going to be a competitive situation. You’re going to have a lot of good players vying for ice time and playing in the lineup. 

“So I think it’s a good situation for everybody.” 

Strome’s addition is a perfect example of how the rest of the Capitals’ lineup could be affected. Coming from the Chicago Blackhawks, the talented 25-year-old scorer could easily slot in on the second line to replace Backstrom. Strome, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal, is coming off a career-high 22-goal season and was only let go by the Blackhawks because Chicago is embarking on a start-from-scratch rebuild. 

But what does the signing mean for Connor McMichael? After playing in 68 games last season, the 21-year-old appeared poised to take a step forward. MacLellan and coach Peter Laviolette, too, have said they prefer the 2019 first-rounder to play at center rather than the wing.

Even with Backstrom hurt, the Capitals now have five viable centers in Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, Nic Dowd, Strome and McMichael for only four lines. Someone is going to get squeezed.

“We’re not guaranteeing spots for young guys in the lineup,” MacLellan said. “Part of it is you have to earn it to a certain degree. Connor (McMichael) is going to come in and going to be better than he was last year. And it’s going to be, ‘How do we best develop him?’ and ‘How do we do what’s best for our lineup?’ The coaches will balance that out.”

MacLellan said McMichael could play either at center or on the wing, though his preference is still to see him in the middle because he feels the forward is a more active skater when playing there. The executive also mentioned he could see Strome as a winger after having some experience there in Chicago.

McMichael isn’t the only prospect on the verge of cracking the lineup. The Capitals have others like Brett Leason (23), Hendrix Lapierre (20) and Aliaksei Protas (21) who are expected to compete in training camp after having stints with Washington last season. All got a taste of the NHL level because of various injuries to the team’s core throughout the year.

Brown’s arrival appears to make one less spot available. The Capitals gave up a 2024 second-rounder to acquire the Canadian from the Ottawa Senators. Brown, who scored 10 goals last season, is another forward to replace Wilson. The 28-year-old also figures to play a crucial role on the penalty kill with veteran Carl Hagelin still sidelined with a potentially career-threatening eye injury. 

If Strome and Brown play well, there’s an easily imaginable scenario in which the Capitals will look to retain them. Brown, on a $3.6 million salary, is an unrestricted free agent after next season. Strome could also hit the market, albeit as a restricted free agent. 

“Our desire has been to add some young players into our lineup,” MacLellan said. “It makes for some interesting decisions as we go forward here.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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