November 1, 2014

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.

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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