September 30, 2014

Washington Capitals 2013 Positional Preview: The Forwards

With the season opener right around the corner, District Sports Page takes a look at the construction of the roster to start the season. Wednesday, we previewed the defensemen. Today, the forwards.

Alex Ovechkin during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Alex Ovechkin during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Newcomers: Mike Ribeiro, Wojtek Wolski, Joey Crabb
Departed: Alexander Semin, Jeff Halpern, Mike Knuble, Cody Eakin, Keith Aucoin, D.J. King

Nicklas Backstrom
Nicklas Backstrom was headed to one of his strongest offensive seasons to date last season when, during a 3-1 victory over the Calgary Flames, winger Rene Bourque tried to separate Backstrom’s head from his shoulders with an intentional and flagrant elbow to the head. Bourque got a five game suspension without pay for his indiscretion. Backstrom missed half a season. Backstrom came back for the tail end of the season and the playoffs, though he missed a game of his own for a violent cross-check in the Boston series. All told, the Swedish centerman played 42 regular season and 13 playoff games.

Backstrom played for Dynamo Moscow during the lockout and suffered a reported neck injury, which caused much angst among Caps fans. He saw a specialist in Michigan once he returned to the U.S. He’s been cleared for practice, but it’s clear much of the Caps offensive flows through the 25-year old. His health, and acclimation to new coach Adam Oates’ system, could well determine if the Caps are to challenge for the Southeast Division title — a position they vacated last season unceremoniously.

Jay Beagle
Every team in the NHL could use a guy like Jay Beagle on their fourth line. He’s not especially talented in any one area, but the 27-year old is willing to do anything to keep his spot in an NHL lineup. The 6’3″, 215 Calgary native is a tireless worker, willing to lay down in front of any shot, and has enough size to mix it up in the corner when needed. Beagle played in a career-high 41 games last season, netting just four goals and one assist. But as the season drew to a close, then coach Dale Hunter relied more and more on players that have more heart than skill.

Where Beagle fits into Oates’ offense remains to be seen. He and newcomer Joey Crabb will most likely split time between the ice and the press box this season depending on matchups, but no one on this team works harder, in games or practices, and players like that challenge everyone around them to give better effort.

Troy Brouwer
Brouwer was busy during the lockout. He didn’t play overseas like many of his teammates, but was one of the more vocal players during the CBA negotiations, going so far as to call out teammate Roman Hamrlik when the latter made his opinions known about the situation. Both players said fences were mended in separate interviews at the start of camp, but one has to wonder how much lingering resentment there could be should the Caps get off to a slow start or falter on the ice this season.

On the ice, Brouwer had a decent season last year, chipping in with 33 points (18 g, 15 a). But the right winger often was playing a line — or two, really — above his skill level and just seemed to have trouble keeping up with faster and more skilled linemates. His talent set really is best suited as a second or third line winger but often was asked to ride with Ovechkin and Backstrom, especially early last season. It’ll be interesting to see who Brouwer skates with this year. Already, pundits are speculating Oates wants to have Marcus Johansson on the first line with 8 and 19.

Jason Chimera
Chimera enjoyed a career year last season, hitting the 20-goal mark (20 g, 19 a) for the first time as an NHLer. His speed and skating ability caused matchup problems for opposing defenses all season long, and his extra and unexpected production help pick up some of the slack of injuries and ineffectiveness from some of the Caps top players. It wasn’t enough to overcome the Caps struggles on offense, but Chimera seemed to have a knack for the timely goal, including what turned out to be the game-winner in Game 6 of the first round against the Rangers.

The 33-year old winger will once again be expected to fill out a third line spot, combining with Joel Ward and perhaps Brooks Laich (once healthy) to provide a steady overall game, lightning speed and a little bit of edge.

Joey Crabb
Crabb is a 29-year old Alaska native just coming into his own as an NHL depth player. Last season for Toronto, the 6’1″, 190 winger played in a career high 67 games and set personal bests with 11 goals and 15 assists for a plus-1 rating on a truly dismal Maple Leafs squad.

Crabb has appeared in 144 career NHL games with Atlanta and Toronto, compiling 50 points (18 goals, 32 assists) and 85 penalty minutes. He collected 172 points (73 goals, 99 assists) in 299 career AHL games with Chicago and Toronto. Like Beagle, Crabb is a hard-worker, willing to do what’s asked of him to keep a roster spot. He killed penalties with Toronto and could very well see time with that duty in D.C.

Eric Fehr
It’s a familiar — and unhappy — story for Eric Fehr. A once-promising high-scoring winger with size and skating ability, Fehr suffered yet again through another injury-plagued season last year with the Winnipeg Jets, his first and only season with his hometown team. He managed to dress for 35 games, but his latest shoulder injury left him at less than capacity and the winger scored just two goals and one assist in another lost season.

Still only 27, the Caps were willing to roll the dice on their 2003 first round (18th overall) pick and signed him to a one-year, $600,000 deal. At that price, the Caps aren’t really risking much to give Fehr an opportunity to show he’s regained his health and can contribute as a depth scorer on the wing this season.

Matt Hendricks
Hendricks earned the nickname “The Paralyzer” last season for his wicked moves during several shootout opportunities, including one late in the season where he faked Bruins goalie Tim Thomas to the ice before skating around the fallen goalie and netting the game-winner. Hendricks’ offensive prowess is pretty much limited to the shootout (4 g, 5 a for the season), but his effort, tenacity and back story as a late bloomer — along with his tireless charity work — makes him a fan favorite regardless.

Hendricks’ presence on the fourth line provides the Caps with energy, effort and a bit of toughness. Hendricks has shown a willingness to mix it up with players much bigger or more skilled in the pugilistic arts when necessary. It’s part of the game that the 31-year old winger has reluctantly accepted to help keep a roster spot in the NHL, as if he needed one more trait to endear himself to Caps fans.

Marcus Johansson
When a 22-year old player is third on the roster in scoring for a veteran-laden playoff team, it has to be an encouraging sign. Yet, when Johansson’s name is brought up in most circles, the word disappointment is bandied about just as much as potential. In his first full NHL season, the Swedish forward registered 14 goals and 32 assists in 80 games, splitting time between center and wing. Early indications from training camp would suggest Oates would like to see the speedy Johansson occupy the opposite wing from Alex Ovechkin on the Caps top line this season, a heady promotion indeed.

Johansson’s offensive playmaking skills are rivaled only by his first line mates on the Caps roster, but last year he showed bouts of wild inconsistency, along with trouble in the faceoff circle and defending bigger, stronger veteran centers. Moving him to a wing on a full-time basis could very well be the thing that spurs Johansson into a legitimate scoring threat in the league. With the departure of Alexander Semin, Johansson is going to be looked upon to boost his just over half-a-point per game average from last season. In fact, it will be critical to the Caps success.

Brooks Laich
Everyone’s favorite part-time tire changer came back from the lockout with a groin injury that will keep him from the opening night lineup. In fact, he has yet to practice with the team, limiting his workouts to pre-practice skating drills on his own. It’s not a place the practice junkie likes to be, but he’s come to live with the fact that his body has to be healthy in order to help the team.

“You’re sort of asking me, ‘Should I be more level-headed than what I have been in the past?’ and the answer is yes,” the 29-year old Laich said after skating without his teammates this past week. “But it’s hard when your brain doesn’t really work like that. I mean, it’s – as a competitor, you want to – all you think about is the competition.”

Once healthy, Laich should occupy a spot on the third line with Chimera and Ward to form a versatile and formidable combination that can play shutdown defense or chip in with a few goals when needed.

Alex Ovechkin
Every move Ovechkin makes is captured, analyzed and dissected. Including getting married in the off-season. Will settling down off the ice help the personable Russian sniper maintain his focus and conditioning on the ice? Will he ever be the 40-50 goal scoring dominant force in the NHL again? Has the league caught up? Has he slowed down? Has his physical style of play worn down his body to the point that it’s not capable of what it once did. Question after question.

What we know about Ovechkin is this: his 65 points last season represented a career low, and it wasn’t even close. His overall scoring has gone down each of the last four seasons, a precipitous drop from his career high 112 points and 65 goal season of ’07-’08. It was also the first time in his career he averaged less than a point per game in the playoffs (5 g, 4 a in 14 games).

Ovechkin was benched late in the season and had his shifts limited in the post-season by former coach Dale Hunter, presumably because the player that was once known as a wrecking ball on skates was a liability in Hunter’s ultra-conservative defensive philosophy. Did Ovechkin learn anything from the experience? Will Adam Oates’ system allow Ovechkin the freedom to create while mitigating his defensive liabilities? Are there shades of the dynamic scorer still inside Alex Ovechkin? More questions than answers. But as Ovechkin goes, so go the Capitals.

Mathieu Perreault
The diminutive forward had a breakout season of sorts last season, registering 16 goals and 14 assists in 64 games for the Caps. His scoring has never really been questioned, as he has a knack for the net and a willingness to get into places where his undersized body is put into jeopardy. But simply put, Perreault is too small to really play with the big boys. He is capable as a change of pace type of player, able to take advantage of his quick shot in the right matchup, but just not strong enough to be counted on as a top-six forward in the league.

But there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily. Perreault will once again be part of the depth scoring rotation, perhaps trading sweaters with the recently re-signed Eric Fehr depending on the matchup (and Fehr’s health) on any given night.

Mike Ribeiro
The Capitals long-elusive second line center was acquired in an off-season trade by GM George McPhee for Cody Eakin and a second round draft pick in last year’s draft. Ribeiro is a player that brings skill, speed and much-needed orneriness to the Caps skill lines.  Ribeiro, 32, ranked tied for second on Dallas with 63 points (18 goals, 45 assists) in 74 games during the 2011-12 season. He has collected 560 points (173 goals, 387 assists) in 737 career NHL games with Dallas and Montreal. In 42 career playoff games Ribeiro has recorded 25 points (five goals, 20 assists) and was an All-Star in 2008 during his career season when he scored 27 goals and 56 assists. He’s reached the 50 assist mark three times in his 12-year NHL career.

In addition to his offensive prowess, Ribeiro is known across the league as one of the chippiest forwards, despite being average size (6’0″, 180). He’s as adept at getting into defensemen and goalie’s heads as he is getting into the goal. For a team that has been considered as too “soft” in the past, Ribeiro’s feistiness could very well be as much a boost as his offensive skill.

Joel Ward
Ward was the hero of the Bruins series in the first round last season, following a rebound off a rush by the now-departed Mike Knuble and beating Tim Thomas to end Game 7 of that series in overtime, allowing the Caps to escape a tightly-contested series and advance to the second round, where they met ultimately met their demise against the New York Rangers. He joined his then-coach, Dale Hunter, and Sergei Fedorov as the only players to score a Game Seven game-winning goal in Washington Capitals history.

Go ahead. Click the link. I’ll wait.

Ward, 32, won’t be asked to contribute offensive fireworks like that on a regular basis this season. He only had 18 points last season (6 g, 12 a). His role is that of the shut-down checker and penalty killer. But it sure was fun that night in Boston, eh?

Wojtek Wolski
Wolski was brought in by McPhee as a bargain basement free agent and will get the first opportunity to fill Alexander Semin’s considerable shoes on the Caps second line. Like Semin, Wolski is a bit of an enigma, often described as a gifted offensive player that isn’t willing to put in the work or effort to truly succeed in the league. Wolski even acknowledged as much in his initial interview with D.C. media, describing his career to be “at a crossroads“. The Caps become his sixth franchise in seven NHL seasons and he’s been traded during the season each of the last three seasons.

Wolski was a very highly rated prospect and was a first round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2004. His best season was ’09-’10, when the Poland-born, Toronto-bred winger recorded 23 goals and 65 points in 80 games with Colorado and Phoenix, but he’s never really had things completely “click” for him and he’s never approached those types of numbers since. He played just nine NHL games in ’11-’12 for the Rangers. If Wolski can provide some scoring relief, McPhee will look like some sort of guru. If not, the GM will be looking for help up front at the trade deadline.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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  1. [...] Washington Capitals 2013 Positional Preview: The Forwards He joined his then-coach, Dale Hunter, and Sergei Fedorov as the only players to score a Game Seven game-winning goal in Capitals (Washington) history. Go ahead. Click the link. I'll wait. Ward, 32, won't be asked to contribute offensive fireworks like … Read more on District Sports Page [...]

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