Just as Barry Trotz has visions of multiple forward line combinations dancing in his head, Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden has a variety of defensive pairings he’d like to see once training camp rolls around in September.
“It’s going to be a competitive situation,” Reirden said last week as the Capitals’ development camp drew to a close. “We have to see what pairs work well when we get them together.
“Obviously, [John] Carlson and [Karl] Alzner have spent a lot of time playing together in the past and I know [Brooks] Orpik and [Matt] Niskanen have played together in the past.
“The logic would be to go right away to something that’s comfortable, but I think it’s more important to switch them up and let them learn together and help them grow as teammates, especially early on.
“So we’ll try some different looks in the beginning of training camp, moreso than when we get closer to the end. It’ll be a good competition. We’ve got some good players back there and some good depth and I’m looking forward to getting it going. I’ll be anxiously awaiting rookie camp and training camp.”
Back on July 1, after he signed Orpik and Niskanen to a combined 12 years and $67.75 million, Caps GM Brian MacLellan said he envisioned right-handers Carlson, Niskanen and Mike Green staying on their strong sides. He also mentioned the familiarity Orpik has with Carlson after being paired together with the U.S. Olympic team.
If the Caps start with a top pairing of Orpik and Carlson, a second pairing of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen would make sense, at least until you consider Dmitry Orlov and Green being reunited.
Green and Orlov struggled as a pair last season, which could mean a shuffling of the deck that could have Niskanen moving to the left with Green, and Alzner moving to the right on a third pairing with Orlov.
There has been plenty of trade speculation swirling around the Caps’ 28-year-old defenseman, the most recent coming out of Detroit, where the Red Wings targeted but failed to land right-handed blue liners Anton Stralman, Dan Boyle and Niskanen.
The Caps are in need of a second-line center and Trotz has spoken glowingly of Red Wings center Gustav Nyquist, a 24-year-old Swede who seemed to come out of nowhere [he was taken with the 121st pick of the 2008 draft] to score 28 goals last season.
Nyquist is entering the second year of a two-year contract that pays him $1.05 million next season with a $950,000 cap hit. Green is entering the final year of a contract that pays him $6.25 million and carries a cap hit of roughly $6.1 million. With that in mind, the Caps would need to sweeten any offer for Nyquist.
If the Caps are interested in moving Green for a second-line center who, like himself, is headed toward free agency next summer, that list of potential candidates includes Boston’s David Krejci, 28, Nashville’s Mike Fisher, 34, and Arizona’s Antoine Vermette, 31.
Or, they could trade contracts with the Colorado Avalanche, exchanging Green for 23-year-old center Ryan O’Reilly, who is likely to make $6 million next season when or if his case goes to arbitration.
There is also the intrigue of Jumbo Joe Thornton, a 35-year-old beast of a center who may be looking for a change of scenery after signing a three-year, $20.25 million contract extension with San Jose that carries a $6.75 million cap hit. Thornton proved he is still one of the best set-up men in the league last season with 65 assists and 76 points.
If Green is removed from the Caps’ defensive equation, the season-opening combinations will have a completely different look, with Orpik, Carlson, Alzner and Niskanen filling the top four slots and some combination of Jack Hillen, John Erskine, Connor Carrick and Nate Schmidt making up the third pairing.
The question facing the Caps is whether they are willing to weaken their blue line at the expense of strengthening themselves down the middle. Only time will provide that answer.