Head coach Barry Trotz has tried just about everyone at right wing on the top line, but no one creates more reaction than when Jay Beagle is given the nod.
Trotz is not the first coach to try this tactic. Adam Oates famously paired Beagle with Ovechkin as the top line center much to the horror of the hockey community. The reaction was so negative some touted this decision as one of the main reasons why Oates should be fired.
With a competent coach now in charge of the team, many thought the days of Beagle on the top line were over, but in the merry-go-round of forwards to play on the right of the top line, Beagle has certainly had his fair share of opportunities.
On a four-game losing streak and hosting rival Pittsburgh, Trotz again had Beagle playing alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and scratched rookie Andre Burakovsky.
Barring any sort of blackmail situation in which Beagle has some compromising photos of both Oates and Trotz (doubtful), there must be some reason why Beagle continues to find himself on the top line when it is so clear he does not belong.
Let’s not just trash Beagle, he’s everything a coach could want in a third/fourth line utility player. He can play both center or wing. He accepts whatever his role may be on any given night without complaint, even if that means sitting in the press box.
What he also brings is defensive accountability. Players like Beagle do not enter a game with any illusions as to their playing time. They know they have to earn every second they get; they cannot afford to ignore the defensive aspects of the game or they won’t get off the bench.
This explains why Beagle is a good player to have, but it doesn’t justify a spot on the top line.
In the midst of a four-game losing streak, Trotz wanted to add balance to the top line and turned to Beagle. It worked like a charm. The Caps pounded the Penguins 4-0 with the top line getting the first goal less than five minutes into the game.
“In Columbus they were too loose,” Trotz said of the top line. “That line was great when they had the puck, but without it they were way too loose. I wanted to get more balance on that line and Beags is always a good cure for that lately.”
With Beagle on the top line, the forecheck was more aggressive, they cycled the puck better behind the net and they still remained accountable on defense.
If you’ve been following this team all season, you’ve probably heard the expression ‘low to high’ multiple times. Ovechkin’s first goal against Pittsburgh is exactly what Trotz is looking for.
Beagle took the puck into the offensive zone and all five Penguins got caught boxing him into the corner. Backstrom then dumped the puck to a wide open Karl Alzner on the blue line and Alzner’s shot was deflected in by Ovechkin.
This was the top line getting back to the basics of Trotz’s system.
As a long-term solution, Beagle on the top line makes no sense. You don’t need me to tell you that, common sense says it is a bad idea and the numbers bear that out. Utilizing him the way Trotz does, however, can have limited benefits.
First, unlike under Oates where Beagle was center, Trotz uses him on the wing. Center is a more important position for offensive lines and when Beagle is there, it is impossible for him not to weigh the top line down. Second, regardless of whether Beagle starts the game on the top line, that does not mean he has to stay there.
Line combinations were very rigid when it came to the stubborn Oates, but they are much more fluid under Trotz. Beagle started on the top line again on Sunday against St. Louis, but was replaced by Wilson for much of the second and third periods.
Trotz can trust Beagle to play his system; he cycles the puck, he goes low to high, crashes the net and gets back on defense. His presence on the top line forces Backstrom and Ovechkin to do the same. What Beagle can’t do is contribute offensively.
When the top line needs a quick kick in the pants to get back to the basics, Beagle is a viable short-term option.