November 23, 2014

Washington Capitals have challenging decision on line combinations

Alex Ovechkin -Practice April 27(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Alex Ovechkin -Practice April 27(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Everyone’s favorite offseason activity is analyzing the roster and playing around with the line combinations. By now, Washington Capitals fans have realized no help is coming at center.

The hole left in the lineup by the departure of Mikhail Grabovski will have to filled by someone already on the roster. Brad Richards will not be coming to the rescue like a knight in shining armor, there will be no miraculous trade for Ryan O’Reilly; the Caps will have to make do with what the have.

In an interview with NHL.com, Barry Trotz was asked about his thoughts on the second line center.

“I’m going to let them play through the camp,” he said,” but my vision is that [Marcus] Johansson will play in the middle and [Evgeny] Kuznetsov or [Andre] Burakovsky will play in the middle and one will have to move to the wall. In today’s game, the more options you have the better off you are.”

Of course, Trotz will not be able to put the team together until he actually sees them on the ice, but he has given us several clues throughout the summer as to how he hopes to construct his offensive lines. Let’s go back through what he has said and construct the most likely lineup for the top nine.

Nicklas Backstrom we know for sure will be the top line center, as he should be. Ovechkin will also be on the wing. Those are about the only things that are set in stone. Trotz will wait for camp before deciding how the rest will play out, but he does have candidates in mind.

“Through Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer – one of them might have to play on the top line – Kuznetsov, Johansson, Burakovsky, [Eric] Fehr, I think we can probably establish a pretty good second line.”

From this, we can assume the third member of the top line will either be Brooks Laich or Troy Brouwer. Whoever he picks will ultimately be determined by what side Ovechkin plays on.

With the departure of Adam Oates, many wondered if Alex Ovechkin could return to left wing. Trotz addressed this possibility with reporters in June. “I told Alex, ‘I know you can play both sides but right now let’s start you on the right. You had good success last year.’”

Trotz’s initial inclination is to keep Ovechkin on the right. Given that Brouwer is a natural right wing, that makes Laich the more likely of the two giving the Caps a top line of Laich-Backstrom-Ovechkin.

The major problem with this scenario is that it gives the Caps too many right wings and not enough left wings. Laich is on the top line as a wing, but he is a natural center and a third line caliber one at that.

On the right, you have Brouwer, Fehr, Joel Ward and Tom Wilson. Trotz commented that “based on performance the Jason Chimera-Joel Ward line probably outperformed any combination that they had in a second line” so I find it hard to believe Chimera and Ward will not be together again on the third line.

Given Brouwer’s experience and skill, he should be on the second line if not the first. This would make Wilson the odd man out yet again. It is hard to envision Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan making the same mistake with Wilson that Oates did and relegating him to the fourth line where he will get limited playing time.

Wilson, however, is eligible for the AHL this year now that he has turned 20. If Trotz insists on keeping Ovechkin on the right, it could well mean a trip to Hershey for Wilson. As he suffered a fractured left fibula in the offseason, Hershey may be a good option for Wilson to make sure he is healthy, even if it is not where Caps’ fans want to see him.

So in order on the right we have Ovechkin, Brouwer and Ward.

But that still leaves Eric Fehr.

Trotz also briefly mentioned Fehr in his interview with NHL.com saying “[he] played in the middle last season but I think he’s probably going to end up on the wing.” Third line center is not an option and neither is the fourth line.

So if he does not fit on the second line and the only opening on the third line is center, where does he fit?

Not the fourth line.

Playing center last season, which is not his natural position, Fehr was a part of that exceptional third line. Though he developed a more grinding style out of necessity to resurrect his career, he is mostly a skilled player. His skill set does not fit at all on the fourth line and it would be a waste of a talented player.

The Oates’ era of playing players on lines they clearly do not belong is over; in no way does bumping Fehr to the fourth line make any sense.

That’s why, barring a trade to bring in a left wing and/or clear up the logjam on the right, Ovechkin is going to ultimately end up on the left. Here is a projection of what the top nine may look like in that scenario:

Ovechkin-Backstrom-Brouwer

Johansson-Kuznetsov-Fehr

Chimera-Laich-Ward

The first thing to note is who is not on in this lineup: Wilson and Burakovsky. As I said before, I think the plan is for Wilson to go to Hershey to make sure he is fully healthy before coming back to the Caps.

As for Burakovsky, adding him means taking out someone else. I don’t know if there is anyone in this top nine I would take out for him at the moment. If he dazzles in camp the way he did in the development camp, that may change, but for now I think Trotz mentioning him as a possibility was because he is intrigued by how good he looked playing with the other prospects. If he plays well enough to give Trotz another option for the top nine, that’s a good problem to have. For now, however, he needs to show he can compete with the rest of the Caps before I pencil him into the lineup.

This lineup makes far more sense to me than trying to juggle all the talent on the right and Trotz knows that. So why say he would keep Ovechkin on the right? My guess is because that’s what Ovechkin wants.

Just as it took some convincing from Oates to move him from left to right, it will take more convincing to move him back to the left. While Oates was unceremoniously panned by the media and fans alike on his way out of Washington, Ovechkin surprisingly was one of the few Oates supporters going so far as to say he wanted him to return as coach next season.

Of course what one says publicly can be very different than what he may actually feel, but Ovechkin thrived offensively under Oates. His defense of the former coach could have been disingenuous, or it may have stemmed from the fact that he didn’t want to move from the right where he has rediscovered his scoring touch (even if his numbers were inflated by the power play on which he played on the left side).

Regardless of why, the lineup is clearly heavy on the right side. It would make little sense to lineup Ovechkin there and bump good players down the depth chart or out of the lineup altogether. Barring a trade of some sort, I can’t envision this happening.


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. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and is a college football and Washington Capitals blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com. J.J. follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

Comments

  1. You’re overlooking a key, fundamental factor here that has a pretty big impact on the point you’re making…

    Brouwer has played left wing, and effectively. So has Fehr. And for all we know, Wilson may be comfortable there, too.

    Wilson might be the most intriguing guy on the roster to try this with. If he lands in the top 9, it’s most likely to be in the top 6, as we agree that Chimera and Ward will stay on the third with one of the center options mentioned earlier. In a top 6 role, Wilson is most likely going to be a get-to-the-net guy, not unlike Brouwer.

    This mitigates whatever troubles he might have moving to the left side, and with the skill of either Backstrom and Ovi or Kuznetsov and Brouwer around him, he should adapt to his role as quickly as his instincts and hockey sense allow.

    Then there’s the domino effect that happens as camp develops. Maybe Burakovsky legitimately cracks the lineup. Maybe Fehr’s best fit keeps him at 3C. Maybe Wilson isn’t ready to go and will miss significant time. Maybe, with a new coach at the helm, it ends up that new chemistry shakes out in a way that unsettles the things we think are locks. Like it’s possible — albeit unlikely — that Kuznetsov and Ovechkin click in a way that makes it possible to build a line around Backstrom, who has always managed to excel when Ovi was out of the lineup and could give us a real 2nd line.

    Any one of these things could drastically change our lineup. Let’s just use Burakovsky as an example. If he cracks the lineup with a guy like Trotz at the wheel, it’ll be because he’s doing more than holding his own, and is bringing elements to the ice that are making the guys around him better. He’s a natural LW, so this eliminates the need to move Ovi back to the left and/or using Laich on the left (and in the top 6, period).

    That’d probably leave you with…

    MoJo – Backstrom – Ovechkin
    Burakovsky – Kuznetsov – Brouwer
    Chimera – Laich – Ward

    And then there’s still what could happen if Wilson can play LW, because I think the top line would benefit more from a thumper that can close than what MoJo has brought to the table in that spot historically. Brouwer and Wilson fit that role if Wilson can step up. I don’t know that he’s ready for a top line spot even if his skillset is suited for it, but I also cringe at a 2nd line that’s filled with basically all rookies.

    And look at Latta’s possession numbers in a pretty decent-sized sample last year. Who knows how they would have trended if he hadn’t gotten hurt and never called up again, but he has the potential to be the every-game 4C we need.

    So our potential depth may give us the option of truly rolling 4 lines the way Boston has in recent years, where it’s not 4-6 minutes a night; it’s upwards of 11 or 12. Now consider a line of Fehr/Latta/Wilson…

    Johansson – Backstrom – Ovechkin
    Burakovsky – Kuznetsov – Brouwer
    Chimera – Laich – Ward
    Fehr – Latta – Wilson

    Depending on Latta’s development and Trotz’s ability to reign in Wilson’s animal side a bit and get him more focused on his offensive game, that’s a 4th line that can score. Fehr is a rangy, opportunistic, and versatile forward, and his work ethic and performance these last 2 years has been stellar. If we REALLY roll 4 lines, he’d be the right mentor for his linemates, Wilson would get some of the extra minutes he needs, and you’d have a versatile, hard-working, physical 4th line that has it in them to score goals.

    My point is that it’s fun to speculate, but at this stage in the offseason there’s too much in flux to project anything with any accuracy. We still might make moves, like it’s pretty easy to see how expendable Johansson may be, especially if Burakovsky makes the show. And he’d have real value elsewhere, so he might land us a starter in return.

    And then there’s camp. The sheer volume of things that can happen in camp that would rock our roster is limitless. So right now more focus on individual players and positions would yield much more accurate analysis than, “What is our lineup going to look like on opening night?” There’s too many factors up in the air to figure that out…

  2. J.J. Regan says:

    Interesting points. First, I would say that Trotz’s hinting that perhpas Laich could play on the top line is because he is not considering Brouwer on the left side regardless of what he may have done in the past. I believe the Johansson on the top line ship has sailed. Trotz wants more depth at center and Johansson is a natural center. Plus, he has not shown enough production on the top line to keep him there.

    There is absolutely no chance that Wilson plays on the fourth line. Trotz raved about him and everyone but Adam Oates knows he was mishandled last season. Even if you roll lines, Wilson would not be getting enough ice time.

    My point with the article was not to definitively declare what the lineup will be, but to speculate, much as you did. Obviously my projections could look very different by the start of the season, or by next month, or by tomorrow, but it’s summer and we have to fill the hockey void somehow.

    Thanks for reading!

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