September 21, 2014

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.

About J.J. Regan

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 JJ on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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