December 16, 2019

Oates shakes up Caps forward lines; Wilson staying in D.C.

It was kind of a busy media day at Kettler for the Washington Capitals Friday, as Adam Oates changed up his forward lines quite a bit and announced that F Tom Wilson will stay with the Caps all season.

Wilson, 19 and earning just 6:41 per game, could have been returned to his Juniors team without counting against his contract up until his tenth game of the season. But GM Geprge McPhee and Oates both reiterated that Wilson would stay in D.C. for the long-term. Wilson is not eligible to play in the AHL this season due to some quirky age and draft restrictions.

As for the forward lines, in an effort to try to add offense to the second line, Oates moved Martin Erat up to the left wing spot there, sliding Brooks Laich to center with Troy Brouwer keeping his familiar spot. He then dropped Mikhail Grabovski to center the third line with wingers Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. The fourth line had Jay Beagle centering Aaron Volpatti on the left and Wilson and Eric Fehr slotted at right wing.

Some of the changes make a lot of sense, and some others remain head-scratchers. After keeping the forward lines intact the first seven games of the season — with decidedly mixed results — Oates’ tinkering here is not insignificant. Caps fans are used to constant line shuffling, as previous coach Bruce Boudreau, and even Dale Hunter to an extent, fiddled with the line combinations on a regular — even nightly — basis.

For my money, the Caps best line this season to this point was the third line, with Fehr between Chimera and Ward. That group has had the best puck possession numbers of any of the groups of forwards. Fehr, a natural scoring winger, has been doing a credible job in the faceoff dot, but to me the experiment to line him up in a pivot position was always a reach — essentially, the Caps were trying to shoehorn him into a spot in order to increase his flexibility in order to justify keeping him over Matthieu Perreault.

Where I don’t see Fehr is on the right wing on the fourth line. Granted, Wilson isn’t getting a ton of ice time yet this season, but that kinda has to be his spot to justify the Caps decision to keep him with the big club and not let him play full minutes every night in Juniors.

Also, it seems to be a bit of a waste to move Grabovski down between Chimera and Ward, two players not particularly gifted skills-wise. Granted, Grabovski puts up good possession numbers and this line should be able to generate some chances due to that, but it will certainly limit Grabovski’s ability to be more creative with the puck — not that he was having a whole lot of success in that area between Laich and Brouwer.

I really do prefer Laich at the center position, but I’d like to see him at the pivot on the third line with fellow grinders Chimera and Ward, especially since Laich sees a lot of penalty kill time with Ward. But the Caps made a huge investment in Laich and have maintained that he is a Top-6 forward and can center the second line, so it appears we’re going to see that combo, at least for the time being.

Of course, none of these changes affect the top line, where Marcus Johansson has been a passenger all season. He’s contributed a meager three shots on goal in seven contests and is routinely being run off puck in all three zones. Johansson is not small (listed at 6’1″, 205) but plays much smaller than his actual stature.

His best asset is his skating ability, but he rarely puts himself into position to fully utilize his skills. And on the rare occasions that he is in the right place at the right time, he usually passes up the shot in deference to his two senior linemates.

The Caps play Saturday night against Columbus in the last of a five-game homestand before heading out on a Western Canada swing next week that will see them through Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver before heading back to the Atlantic Coast to play Metro Division foe Philadelphia before coming back home. It will be an arduous road trip and it could very well tell us exactly what type of team the Caps are going to be this season.

Caps fourth line bringing little to the table

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.

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