In recent years, the Washington Capitals fourth line might not have generated a ton of offense, but at least they had a very discernible sense of purpose. This season, it’s mostly just the left over forwards on the roster jumbled together.
A comment on today’s links post over at Japers Rink spurred a discussion of the role the Caps have asked their fourth liners to perform. One commenter pined for the days of Matt Bradley skating around, kicking ass and taking names. While that particular sentiment isn’t unique, it’s also just one function the players on those fourth lines were asked to fill.
The last couple of seasons, the Capitals featured two face-off and penalty kill specialists in Boyd Gordon and David Steckel. They were both ranked near the top of the face-off leaders in the league and took a bulk of the defensive zone face-offs for this team. Both players served multiple roles on the team, played a lot on the penalty kill, and forechecked well.
Also on that fourth line was resident bad-ass Matt Bradley, who apparently carried an aura of greatness that transferred to those around him. But seriously, Bradley forechecked as hard as anyone, had a knack for cashing in against the tougher teams in the league, and filled the Matt Hendricks role when Hendricks still thought of himself as a goal scorer. But not only did Bradley fight, but it’s how he did it; sticking up for his teammates, putting his body on the line against tougher opponents, stepping in to defend his skilled players when they needed protecting.
Anyone remember this? Matt Bradley bled for this team and his teammates.
That fourth line featured players that filled multiple roles for the Caps. Gordon and Steckel killed penalties and took big face-offs. Bradley brought energy and his willingness to get punched in the face. The line had a set role for the team, and served as a cohesive unit.
As Caps fans are all too aware, all three have left for greener pastures. Steckel was traded at the last deadline for the now-departed Jason Arnott, the most recent player brought in to fill the black hole that is “veteran second line center with leadership”, while Gordon and Bradley were allowed to walk via free agency, their places to be filled with younger and less-expensive options.
The Caps fourth line is currently composed of a small, offensive-minded and defensively challenged center, usually rookie Cody Eakin or long-time Hershey shuttle frequent flyer Mathieu Perreault, one winger who’s greatest attribute is his work ethic (Hendricks) and another that, despite his general toughness, doesn’t really bring any discernable skill to the table (Jay Beagle).
None of the four play special teams. They have seven goals combined. Eakin and Perreault have been less than stellar in the dot. Granted Hendricks occasionally drops the mitts, but he does so reluctantly and mostly against other middleweights in the “get the team and fans fired up” mode. And other than getting knocked out by Arron Asham, I’m not sure what Jay Beagle does for this team.
It’s apparent coach Dale Hunter wonders the same thing by the way the doles out playing time. Hendricks, Perreault, Eakin and Beagle receive the least amount of average time on ice per game for anyone that has suited up for the Caps in more than four games this season. None of the four average even ten minutes per game.
Jeff Halpern was brought in this season in the Boyd Gordon role. In a perfect world, Halpern would be centering the fourth line, taking the tough defensive-zone draws and killing penalties. But with the injury to Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson’s inability to take a strong grasp of the second line center slot, Halpern has had to help out in the Top Six, which is a whole ‘nother problem.
In the grand scheme of things, the Caps have much bigger problems than the state of the fourth line facing them as the second half of the season grinds away. They aren’t getting enough shots on goal or creating enough scoring chances. They have injuries to two of their three best players with no real timetable for their return. They have a rookie NHL head coach trying to implement a different approach to hockey.
But it is emblematic of the state of affairs for the Caps. Essentially, the third line (Chimera-Laich-Ward) is filling the role of the fourth line in years past. Unfortunately, the current fourth line is just little-used, poorly matched spare parts.