December 15, 2017

Building a lineup out of the Caps’ castaways

Mike Ribeiro addressing media during Washington Capitals Development Camp Day 6 Scrimmage at Kettler,  7/14/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mike Ribeiro addressing media during Washington Capitals Development Camp Day 6 Scrimmage at Kettler, 7/14/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

After seeing Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro torch the Washington Capitals last Saturday, fans in the Verizon Center were left wondering, what if?

What if former general manager George McPhee had held onto the team’s top prospect in Forsberg and found a way to re-sign Ribeiro? Would those players be producing at the rate they are now for the Nashville Predators? How much better would a Caps’ team that lacks secondary scoring look with Forsberg’s 59 points and Ribeiro’s 60?

Those are the questions that will keep fans up at night. [Read more…]

What went wrong with the Washington Capitals, Part 2: Coaching

The Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from the playoffs last week, something few fans and analysts anticipated at the start of the season.

By failing to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Caps were clearly one of the more disappointing teams this season. This is part two of a three-part series looking into what went wrong for the Caps. Last week, we looked at general manager George McPhee.

This week, we’ll look at the man behind the bench, Adam Oates.

One reason why this season was such a disappointment is because of the success Oates had in his first season as coach. After a 2-8-1 start to the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the Caps rallied to win the Southeast Division and make their sixth consecutive postseason.

This was especially impressive given the fact that Oates did not have the time in the offseason or a camp to instill his new system and coaching style with the team; he had to take control on the fly and the team responded.

Oates’ initial success made everyone believe the team would thrive in his second year with a full offseason.

That didn’t happen.

So a first-year head coach was able to take over an NHL team with no offseason and lead them to the playoffs, but in his second season the team flounder even with a normal offseason schedule. Doesn’t that seem backwards to you?

Indeed Oates took a huge step back this year with baffling personnel decisions, a stubbornness to change or acknowledge those things that weren’t working and his complete inability to give this team any sort of identity.

Oates got things started early in the season with his handling of Tom Wilson.

Wilson averaged less than eight minutes a game even though McPhee made clear at the beginning of the season that he wanted him to receive significant minutes.  About the only thing Wilson has been allowed to do this season is fight.

Part of the reason he was brought to the NHL was to protect him from players targeting him in the OHL to make a name for themselves. Luckily Oates was there to protect him from those 18 and 19 year olds by throwing him to the wolves in the NHL.

If we are going to talk about personnel, we have to talk about Jay Beagle.

Perhaps the most curious move Oates made this season was moving Beagle to the top line to play with Alex Ovechkin at a time when the team was in desperate need of points.

Just one year ago, Oates stuck Ovechkin with Beagle and Joey Crabb when Ovechkin wanted to move back to left wing. It was a not-so-subtle hint to Ovechkin that if he did not commit to the switch to right wing, he would be stuck with a line he could not produce with.

In one year Beagle went from a ‘punishment’ center to the actual top center. Take a guess as to how well that move worked.

Ovechkin’s line was allowing more goals than it was producing and Oates added Beagle, a more defensively responsible forward, to the top line in an effort to fix the problem.

Dale Hunter’s solution for this was to simply bench Ovechkin, so I applaud Oates’ effort to find a more viable solution, but this move was doomed from the start.

Beagle is a ‘defensively responsible’ forward because he can’t produce offensively. At all. His career high in points is nine, set this season. Even though he played more games this season (62) than he has in any other season in his career and spent time playing with the best scorer in the world, he still managed only nine points.

What really bothers me about this move other than the fact that it didn’t work was that it vilified both Beagle and Ovechkin. Beagle is everything you want in a fourth line player; he works hard, he has an imposing frame which he’s not afraid to use, but he is a horrendous option for the top line. Continually throwing him on the top line where he doesn’t belong exposes his flaws and does not endear him to the fans. He does his job well, but by asking him to do more than he is capable of Oates made Beagle look and feel like a detriment to the team. That’s not fair and it’s not right.

Ovechkin also came under intense scrutiny in the back half of the season as his plus-minus continued to drop, but he can’t improve his plus-minus if he’s skating with someone who can’t produce offensively.

Did the top line allow as many goals with Beagle? No, but they didn’t score any either.

Ovechkin did not score a single point while skating with Beagle. Instead of allowing more goals than they were scoring, the top line just stopped scoring.

And yet Oates would not back down. This experiment should have lasted only a few games, but it went on for two weeks. When asked, what did Oates have to say? “I thought that line hasn’t hurt us.”

What team was he watching?

It was this kind of stubborn refusal to acknowledge any of his team’s struggles or make necessary changes that made this season so frustrating.

The team needed a top six forward and Oates kept Martin Erat on the fourth line until he was traded. The roster is very weak on the left side, but Oates put Dustin Penner on the fourth line after the team traded for him. Oates kept Dmitry Orlov cycling back and forth between Washington and Hershey so many times that he demanded a trade. Oates rode Philipp Grubauer into the ground and refused to play Michal Neuvirth even though that was the only way to raise his trade value. Oates continually played Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer on a line despite the fact that they are two players with two similar playing styles and did not produce offensively together.

McPhee’s hands were also tied in terms of building a roster given Oates’ insistence on playing each player on their shooting side, thus limiting McPhee’s options. Even when he did bring in players that seemingly fit what the team needed, Oates refused to use them.

McPhee may be at fault for not bringing in players that Oates would want to use, but Oates is at fault for not utilizing an optimal lineup.

You can’t convince me that it is better for the team to have Beagle on the top line and Erat and Penner on the fourth. I can’t quantify what giving players like Erat and Penner more time would mean in terms of the standings, but the Caps ended up only three points behind Detroit for the final wildcard spot. Keeping good players on the bench for much of the year could very well have been the difference between a playoff berth and an early summer vacation.

The only way Oates could have justified his puzzling line combinations would be if these players better fit the team’s identity, but there’s a major problem with that argument:  the team doesn’t have an identity.

Can anyone tell me what this team’s identity is? Are they a run-and-gun offense? A defensive stalwart? Grinders and hard-workers? A trap team? A two-way team? Opportunistic? They are none of these.

The fact is even after 82 games I don’t know what they are.

The ultimate failure of Oates this season is that he was never able to instill an identity into the team, unless you believe that identity was bad-turnovers leading to odd man rushes and a complete reliance on the power play. Given that this isn’t Oates’ first season with the team, that is a particularly egregious failure.

The only way you could characterize the Caps this season is by what they did poorly. They could not hold on to two-goal leads, constantly allowed goals after scoring, could not score at even strength, and literally could not win without scoring three goals or more, going 0-25-7 when scoring two goals or less.

These are mental and systematic mistakes that all reflect on the coaching.

Given the roster Oates was handed to start the season, the Caps should be in the playoffs. Is it a championship caliber roster? No, it had some holes, but it was better than how they played.

Oates is a great assistant coach, but that may be his ceiling. He was hired because he was the architect of New Jersey’s power play and had ideas on how to resurrect Ovechkin’s offensive prowess. He accomplished both feats and put together a productive third line, but he did little else.

Ovechkin, Brouwer Jason Chimera and Joel Ward all had great offensive numbers under Oates’ tutelage. Ovechkin even led the league with 51 goals this season.

Before you hail Oates as an offensive genius, however, consider this: 24 of Ovechkin’s 51 goals were scored on the power play where he continues to play on the left side. Nearly half of his goals came on the side Oates moved Ovechkin away from.

Oates didn’t fix Ovechkin, he fixed the power play.

Oates can believe in whatever theories or ideas he wants, but the results from his first full season as a head coach have been downright awful. He is the definition of a meddling coach, tweaking everything from playing side, stick curves and even goaltending style. When things went bad this season he blamed everyone else throwing players like Ovechkin and Jaroslav Halak under the bus all while sticking to his guns on the questionable decisions he himself had made.

In his first season, Oates showed Caps fans a lot to be hopeful for, but that was just not the case in year two.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the players to see what went wrong on the ice.

Ovechkin, Backstrom and…? Who should be on the top line?

Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are two of the best offensive talents in the NHL, but there’s a problem: forward lines usually have three players. The question of who that third player should be for the Caps’ top line has haunted them all season long and they still don’t have an answer for it.

One of the reasons a top six forward remains a major need for this team is because they don’t even know who their top three is. Whether carrying the passive Marcus Johansson, trying to find a role for Martin Erat or hoping Brooks Laich can start living up to his contract, head coach Adam Oates has done just about everything he can think of to try and find the right mix for his top line.

With the Caps entering the final quarter of the season and still struggling to earn a playoff spot, inconsistency on the top line is not something this team needs. The perfect fit probably isn’t on this roster right now, but it’s time to make a decision and stick with it.

Given Oates’ insistence on playing left-handed players on the left side, that limits the choices to Jason Chimera, Aaron Volpatti, Marcus Johansson, Martin Erat and Brooks Laich.

Finding a top line winger means that player has to have the talent to match those kinds of minutes. With all due respect to Chimera and Volpatti, neither of them are top six forwards.

That leaves Johansson, Erat and Laich.

Finding a cohesive line, however, is about more than just talent. It is also finding the right mix of players and that’s where this gets tricky.

Those who worship the gods of statistics will say that Johansson is the obvious choice. So far this season, he has 38 points while Erat has 24 and Laich has 12.

Those numbers are inflated, however, since Johansson has had more opportunities. He started the season on the top line and is averaging 17:31 per game. That is more than Erat’s 14:44. Laich has a comparable 17:16 per game, but he is getting significant time on the penalty kill. Those kind of minutes won’t do much of your offensive stats.

Johansson has also played in more games (61) than either Erat (53) or Laich (47). The bottom line is that Johansson should have better numbers because he has played more and his ice time isn’t coming on penalty kills.

Johansson appears to be a good fit for the top line, given his style of play. He is a skilled winger whose speed forces defenses to account for him.

When you have Backstrom and Ovechkin on the ice and opposing teams still have to account for the third player on the line, good things will happen, or at least they should.

Johansson’s problem this season has been deferring completely to his superstar linemates. You can’t blame him for playing this way; those are two guys who should have the puck on their sticks as much as possible, but he becomes so passive in his play that it completely negates his role on the line.

He’s not supposed to be a third wheel.

When Oates switches the lineup and Johansson plays with the second or third line, he looks like a different player. He shoots, gets in front of the net and uses his speed to create opportunities. Yes, he is getting a lot of assists, but anyone could rack up points on a line with Backstrom and Ovechkin. Even Chris Clark scored 30 goals with Ovechkin on the top line.

In an ideal lineup, would he be a top line winger? No, he’s better suited for second or third line minutes, but few teams have three offensive superstars. Given the Caps’ roster, he is the guy who makes the most sense; the Caps just don’t have time to wait for him to become assertive.

What about Erat? No, stop laughing, I’m serious. People forget that Erat was a top six forward in Nashville. He’s a good player who never fit in with Oates’ plans for the team and his play and playing time have suffered because of it. That doesn’t mean that he’s not a top six guy.

Erat’s best season came in 2011-12 when he scored 19 goals and 39 assists for 58 points. That’s not bad. To compare, Troy Brouwer, who many Caps fans have mistaken for an offensive dynamo after his great 2013 season, has never recorded more than 40 points in a single year. Erat has seven times.

His style of play, however, does not lend itself well to the top line. Though not as skilled as Backstrom, their style of play is similar. They both use their offensive instincts to create plays and are more adept at feeding the puck to other playmakers than they are to scoring themselves.

These ‘quarterbacks,’ so to speak, are best spread out among the lines rather than placed together. While both players are capable of scoring, they make their living setting up someone else. Much like we saw with Johansson, if Ovechkin is the only guy scoring on a line, he’s the only guy defenses will worry about.

Essentially, having two quarterbacks never seems to work. Just ask the Redskins.

There’s also the possibility, though slim, that Erat may be on a different team come the trade deadline. It’s hard to build your top line along a player who may or may not be here in a few days.

Who does that leave? Surely the answer can’t be Laich who has only 12 points this season? He’s more likely to change a stranger’s tire than he is to record a point!

In an ideal lineup, Laich is a third line center, but again, no NHL team is working with an ideal lineup.

Laich brings something different to that top line. He’s a grinding, two-way winger. No, he’s not a sniper who’s going to light up the scoreboard, but he is someone who can forecheck, crowd the crease, and get those ‘garbage goals.’ He’s also a defensively responsible player which can help make up for Ovechkin’s…er, lack of.

Laich is also not afraid to shoot when he gets the chance. In a two-on-one with Ovechkin against the Panthers on Thursday, Laich rifled a one-timer past Tim Thomas. Laich didn’t immediately look for the pass back to Ovechkin, he fired the shot because Thomas was out of position. Would Johansson or Erat have taken that one-timer? I’m not so sure.

This is not a perfect fit for that the top line. It would be hard to play them as often as Oates may want since Laich is one of the team’s top penalty killers. He also is not as offensively skilled as either Johansson or Erat. Though he looked great Thursday recording a goal and two assists, he has not scored a point in either of the Caps’ two games since.

And let’s not forget the injury concerns. Laich has been dogged both this season and last season with a recurring groin injury. Could top line minutes cause this injury to flare up yet again?

Playing Laich on the top line is not ideal and this is something the Caps will need to address in the offseason. As a quick fix, however, with the team needing some cohesion for the stretch run, he might not be a bad option.

Ovechkin, Carlson both score in easy wins for Russia and U.S.

Alex Ovechkin scored on his first shift of the 2014 Winter Olympics, while John Carlson started Team U.S.A.’s scoring frenzy as both Russian and the U.S. won their first game of the round-robin section of the tournament.

Ovechkin’s blast from the left wing started the scoring for Team Russia as they knocked off Slovenia 5-2. The Great 8 added an assist later on.

Carlson took a drop pass from Phil Kessel on a break and fired a rocket past Jaroslav Halak as Team U.S.A. cruised past Slovakia 7-1.

Nick Backstrom had an assist on Erik Karlsson’s second goal in Team Sweden’s 4-2 victory over Czech Republic, while Marcus Johansson was a healthy scratch. Martin Erat did not record a point in the contest.

 

What to watch for from the five Caps headed to Sochi

(photo courtesy Washington Capitals)

(photo courtesy Washington Capitals)

With the Olympic games underway, Washington Capitals fans will soon be seeing some familiar faces competing in Sochi.

Five Caps will be making the trek to Russia to represent their respective countries. Here are a few things fans should be watching for:

Alex Ovechkin

Obviously the most pressure will be on the Great 8 himself as he tries to carry the host nation to gold. Russia was embarrassed in Vancouver as they were handed a 7-3 drubbing by Canada in the quarterfinals. The Russians have not earned a medal since taking bronze in 2002 and the pressure is on for this team to get back on the medal stand.

Pavel Datsyuk will captain the team, but even so Ovechkin will be one of this team’s leaders as he is among the nation’s biggest stars. He has already been one of the faces of the these Olympics as he unveiled the team’s new jersey and was the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch in Greece as it began its long trek to Sochi.

The question is how will he handle the pressure?

Hockey is a big-time sport in Russia. Players do not dream of growing up and playing for the Stanley Cup. For them, the Olympics are really the pinnacle of the sport. After multiple playoff failures in Washington, some have questioned whether Ovechkin’s leadership is partly to blame.

If he can lead his team back to Olympic glory, he will have answered just about every question about whether he can handle the pressure on the biggest stage. Carrying the weight of Washington will seem like a cakewalk after carrying a nation.

Nicklas Backstrom

Backstrom’s elite skills are often overshadowed by the other superstar on the Caps’ roster. Sweden is absolutely loaded with talent and is one of the favorites to win the gold. The Olympics will offer him the chance to show how good he really is to fans who think of him more as Ovechkin’s sidekick.

It is easy to forget how good offensively Backstrom really is when it seems all he has to do is pass to Ovechkin and watch the show. Backstrom will be an intricate part of Sweden’s offense and a major reason for their success depending on how far they go.

Backstrom can remind the world on the Olympic stage that he’s pretty good too.

Marcus Johansson

With Henrik Sedin’s withdrawal from the Olympics, Johansson got his chance to join Backstrom on team Sweden. Though he is third on the Caps in points with 36, he only has seven goals. He has played incredibly passive this season when on the top line, deferring too much to his teammates.

Anyone can be put on a line with Backstrom and Ovechkin and feed them the puck, but Johansson wasn’t placed on the top line just to be a third wheel. He has his own offensive skills that he just is not utilizing right now in NHL play.

The fact that Johansson was replaced on the top line by Martin Erat is a pretty big sign that he’s not living up to Adam Oates’ expectations for his top left wing.

The Olympics will offer Johansson a chance to be more aggressive offensively. As a replacement player he may not get too much playing time, but hopefully he will take advantage of the time he does get on the ice. He’ll be playing with some good players, but on one of the lower lines he won’t be as overshadowed as he is in Washington. If he can show some aggressiveness in Sochi and bring that mentality home, it will be a huge boon for the Caps.

Martin Erat

Thank goodness he got his first goal of the season Saturday just prior to the Olympic break. Had Erat gone to Sochi and scored before he could even tally one goal this season in the NHL, there would be a lot of pretty bitter Caps fans waiting for him when he got home.

Lost amid his struggles this season is the fact that Erat is still a top-six NHL forward, evidenced by the fact that he is going to Sochi to play for the Czech Republic. Yes, he was called up to replace Vladimir Sobotka, but it is still is a major honor and a vote of confidence from the hockey community.

Sochi now offers Erat the chance to showcase his talents to other prospective NHL teams. The biggest problem Erat has had in Washington is that he just does not fit anywhere into Oates’ lineup. As a result, he has been passed around from line to line and his production has decreased. It’s hard to convince other teams that Erat is a top-six forward when he’s playing on the fourth line and can’t score.

Hopefully Erat will be a better fit for head coach Alois Hadamczik. With a coach who can utilize Erat, he can show that he can still contribute on another NHL team.

John Carlson

Carlson will be the first Capital ever to represent the United States in the Olympics. Widely considered to be the best defenseman on the Caps’ roster, it will be interesting to see where Carlson is in the lineup and how he is utilized by USA coach Dan Bylsma.

If Carlson seems overwhelmed by the tough competition, it will tell fans a lot about the state of the Caps’ defense. This also could be very important for the Caps’ other top offensive playmaker on the blue line, Mike Green.

There has been speculation surrounding Green all season long with his declining production about whether he could be on the trade block. Though a trade before the deadline is not likely to happen, if Carlson plays well it may make McPhee feel better about a possible move in the offseason.
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JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore and is a contributor for Yahoo Sports on the Capitals and Redskins. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

OPINION: Square peg Erat wants out; McPhee will comply

Never a dull moment for the Washington Capitals.

First came the report on a Czech language site. Then the confirmation from the horse’s mouth: Martin Erat demanded a trade from the Caps. After, GM George McPhee indicated he was willing to comply with the veteran player’s requests. Then, coach Adam Oates confirmed McPhee’s opinion that with Brooks Laich healthy, Erat just had a hard time fitting in on the Caps roster.

Obtained (along with center Michael Latta) for former first round prospect Filip Forsberg at last season’s trading deadline, Erat now arguably represents McPhee’s biggest acquisition blunder.

Erat, 33, has been a top-six forward on every team he’s been a part of. Eight times in his career he’s scored better than 16 goals in a full season, and he started this one relegated to fourth line minutes with the likes of a 19-year old rookie and Latta, the player he was traded with, in his first stint in the NHL.

It’s no wonder he was dissatisfied with his playing time.

When McPhee made the deal last season, Laich was still out, rehabbing from his groin injury and surgery. Now skating full-time minutes, Laich has recaptured his old spot in Oates’ lineup, to the detriment of Erat’s minutes.

Both McPhee and Oates mentioned Laich’s health as a key to Erat’s playing situation, as if neither player were capable of filling a different role.

At the start of the season, Laich resumed play on the second line, pushing Erat past the third line on his way to less than 10 minutes of total ice time in each of the team’s first four games and five of its first seven. At some point early in the season, Erat met with McPhee to discuss the situation, confirmed by both men Monday after practice. Erat’s minutes have picked up recently, but still dissatisfied, Erat reiterated his concern and requested a trade to a team that will utilize him in a manner more customary to his career norms. According to McPhee, Erat has been “really flexible” on the teams he may be traded to, with respect to his full no movement clause.

That led us to the bombshell Monday morning.

This is very clearly a situation where this organization trusts the history and past performance of Laich, a player to whom they gave a six-year, $27 million contract two seasons ago. What remains to be seen, however, is if Laich will return to the 20-goal, two-way player he was before his groin injury or not. So far this season, it’s not. In 24 games, Laich has recorded three goals and two assists, fifth on the team in total time on ice, while Erat has a measly six assists in his 23 games.

A lot of folks did not like the Erat trade from the very beginning, as the Caps were very obviously trying to plug a hole in a playoff run while surrendering the team’s second-rated prospect in the process. McPhee said at the time it was not a rental; that Erat had two more years on his deal and that the team was looking long-term when they made the trade. On Monday, McPhee reiterated the organization didn’t know if Laich would be ready for the start of this campaign, and when he was, Erat then became the odd man out.

What’s frustrating to Caps fans, now, is that the team gave up a player that made Nashville’s opening night roster and would be playing top-six minutes there — at age 19 — were it not for a nagging upper-body injury, for a player that recorded a total of nine points in his short stint with the Capitals.

Trades are always difficult to judge until time has passed from the event, but this deal now has unmitigated disaster written all over it, unless McPhee can flip Erat for a first round pick or a player that can slide into a top-four spot on the defense, which will be highly unlikely now that the player’s desire is open in the public. There are teams that will take Martin Erat and what he can bring on the ice, but his return will be pennies on the dollar for what McPhee had to give up to acquire him.

It’s unfortunate asset management for a team that is hamstrung by salary cap implications — like Brooks Laich’s $27 million deal.

Martin Erat demands trade from Washington Capitals

“It’s time for me to move on.” Martin Erat

Saying “I want be traded,” Martin Erat announced today following Washington Capitals practice that he has asked the organization for a trade. A report surfaced in a Czech source about his demands before practice. After he left the ice after the Caps skating-filled practice, Erat confirmed everything in that report — and then some.

“Since day one, I didn’t get the chance here,” Erat said  “I got traded here to be top-six player, but never got the chance, never played more than 15 minutes. It’s time for me to move on.”

Erat was acquired by the Caps, along with Michael Latta, at last season’s deadline for former first round pick Filip Forsberg.

Erat conformed that he did indeed meet with GM George McPhee earlier this season, but was given little indication of why he wasn’t garnering more than the 13:07 average of ice time that he’s been assigned thus far this season. The veteran player was clearly emotional speaking with the media this morning explaining his situation. Asked his opinion of why he didn’t fit in with the Caps, Erat replied, “No idea.”

In 23 games this season, Erat has not scored a goal and has six assists, playing mostly on the bottom lines. Recently, he’s been moved around in an attempt to shake up the lines, but that has brought no better results. He was a healthy scratch last week, and Erat confirmed after practice it was indeed the first time in his NHL career he has been a healthy scratch.

 

Washington Capitals Game 9 Recap: Erat clinches shootout win in Winnipeg

Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals played the first of a five game road trip that will see them touring western Canada before heading into a Metro Division showdown in Philadelphia. Despite an ugly, ragged, defense-optional contest, the Caps came away from Winnipeg with two points as Martin Erat clinched a shootout victory over the Jets for a 5-4 final.

The win raises the Caps record to 4-5-0, tied with Columbus for fourth in the division with eight points and remarkably just six points behind division leader Pittsburgh. [Read more…]

Caps Quick Take: Game 8 vs. Blue Jackets

The Washington Capitals entered Saturday night’s matchup with Columbus with a chance to close out a five-game homestand — one that was disappointing on many levels — on a positive note and head out on a swing of Western Canada (followed by the armpit of America) with an upbeat attitude. The Blue Jackets served the perfect foil in order to for the Caps to regain confidence, as the home team shook up some lines and pairing and came away with a convincing 4-1 win.

1) Martin Erat: 3 assists, +2 in 17:49 on 22 shifts. Enough said.

2) Wait, not enough said. Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich, playing aside the aforementioned Erat, both had goals as well.

3) Marcus Johansson, who has taken a lot of grief in this space, probably played his best game of the season, recording four shots on goal and generally looking involved whenever he was on the ice, and he assisted on Joel Ward’s power play goal in the spot normally occupied by Mikhail Grabovski (and Mike Ribeiro before him).

4) Braden Holtby continues to work in a groove, knocking away 37 or the 38 shots he faced from Columbus. He had a tough time of it in his first few games, but Holtby’s starting to show the form that could very well earn him a spot on Team Canada come February.

5) Washington has scored a power-play goal in five of their eight games this season and scored multiple power-play goals in four of its eight games this season. Alex Ovechkin has scored a power-play goal in four of Washington’s eight games this season. Seven of Ovechkin’s 10 points this season have been earned on the power-play. Both of Joel Ward’s goals this season have come on the power play. Each of Mike Green’s five points this season have come on the power play. Six of Nick Backstrom’s nine point and three of Marcus Johansson’s six point have come on the power play. All of these stat nuggets came directly from the Caps “Player Notes” bullet points from their post-game Notes and Quotes sheet, but that makes them no less poignant.

3-5-0 isn’t the greatest start to the season, but it sure beats 2-6-0, which would have been fairly miserable considering the Caps now head out for their geographically longest roadie of the season: Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Philadelphia. On these types of trips, usually you hope to break even and make hay once you get back home. Washington doesn’t really have that luxury anymore and they really need to come out of this trip with at least six points against some of the softer teams in the Western Conference and the woeful Flyers, who with two measly points are currently looking up at the entire league.

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.

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