December 16, 2019

Plugging the right wing hole on the Caps’ top line

Marcus Johansson Washington Capitals Practice, 10/07/2014 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Marcus Johansson
Washington Capitals Practice, 10/07/2014 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The Washington Capitals may still have 28 games remaining in the regular season, but make no mistake, head coach Barry Trotz is already thinking about line combinations for the postseason.

It would be premature to call the Caps a ‘lock’ to make the playoffs, but at the very least they will be playing some meaningful games down the stretch of the regular season. Trotz needs to have his best line combinations set for when the team really needs to pick up points.

The problem, however, is that there is a big gaping hole on the right side of his top line as the Caps don’t currently employ a top-line right wing.

As the trade deadline approaches, Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan will have to determine if that right wing is even on the roster, and if he is, who will it be.

If we want to figure out who will be playing on the top line, a good start would be to figure out who won’t be.  Joel Ward, Jason Chimera and Jay Beagle have all seen time on the top line this season, but none of these players should be considered actual candidates for the top line.

It took awhile, but Ward is finally thriving in his role as a third-line wing. He does not possess the talent of a top-six forward and moving him to the top line not only fails to solve the problem, it also creates a hole on the third line that has been secure almost all season long.

Apart from the random sighting on the first and second line, Chimera has been cycling between the fourth line and the press box; it seems doubtful that Trotz would suddenly pin his hopes for the top line on his 35-year-old wing.

Beagle still makes an occasional appearances on the top-line, but, as I wrote last week, his value there is limited and he is only used for a very specific purpose.

If the Caps are going to solve their issue on the top line, there are multiple other candidates who Trotz could potentially turn to. Here are the most likely options:

Eric Fehr

Why he makes sense: Though he is playing center, he is a natural wing and a dangerous goal scorer. He is currently tied for second on the team in goals with 16 and that’s while serving on the third line for the majority of the season.

Why he doesn’t make sense: Fehr is thriving at third-line center and Trotz must feel confidence in a Brooks Laich-Fehr-Ward line because Trotz has for the most part left that line intact. Fehr has shown flashes of top-six skill, but to call him a top-line winger is a stretch. He can be a good third-line center or a bad top-line wing. That’s not much of a choice.

Marcus Johansson

Why he makes sense: Johansson has blistering speed and top-six skill. He also has familiarity with Ovechkin and Backstrom given that he has played on the top line with them before. Though he is only 24, he is in his fifth NHL season.

Why he doesn’t make sense: The fact that he has played on the top line before is the problem. If it had worked in the past, he would still be there. In 80 games last season, much of which he spent playing on the top line, Johansson managed only eight goals. Eight. That’s just not enough. He deferred far too often to his linemates, which was understandable at first considering his two linemates were two of the best players in the NHL, but it went on for the entire season. He has been more aggressive this season with 13 goals, but when the stakes are high in the playoffs, can you trust Johansson to pull the trigger and not revert back to the passive player we saw last season?

Andre Burakovsky

Why he makes sense: When Trotz decided trying to break in two rookie wingers was too ambitious for the season, he tried Burakovsky on the top line. The Caps rookie did not seem overwhelmed with the opportunity. The Corsi percentage of both Ovechkin and Backstrom actually improved while playing with Burakovsky so it would be fair to say he makes that line better.

Why he doesn’t make sense: Despite how well he seemed to play, Trotz must have seen something he didn’t like. Since the All-Star break, the Caps have played in eight games and Burakovsky has played in just three of them. Two of those games may have been out of necessity over the past weekend with the recall of Philipp Grubauer and the roster constraints that created, but the point is that if Trotz thought Burakovsky was the answer on the top line, he wouldn’t be cycling between Hershey and the press box. When it comes to the playoffs, if the Caps find themselves in need of a goal late, is Trotz really going to turn to a rookie with only 19 points this season to get the job done?

Troy Brouwer

Why he makes sense: Brouwer is in his 9th season and won a Stanley Cup in Chicago so he’s not going to shy away from the biggest moments in the postseason. His specialty is scoring the ugly goals that neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom excel at. He can screen the net, score deflections and fight for rebounds. His presence on the top line would add balance and experience.

Why he doesn’t make sense: It looks as if Trotz has other plans for Brouwer as he has spent very little time with the top unit. There aren’t many options for a cohesive second line without him. A Johansson-Kuznetsov-Burakovsky line would be bullied physically and lacks leadership and experience. You could add Wilson to add some muscle, but that would not address the lack of leadership and he is too easily goaded into taking foolish penalties. The Caps’ young stars are loaded with talent, but they need the steadying influence Brouwer provides.

Tom Wilson

Why he makes sense: Wilson is a natural right wing who has already experienced playoff hockey and adds some muscle to the top line. Though he grabs more attention for his fisticuffs than his scoring prowess, he has a lot more offensive talent than one might think. In his final season in the OHL, he put up 58 points in 48 games.

Why he doesn’t make sense: The most notable thing about Wilson’s time on the top line was how often he was benched. Trotz would bench Wilson frequently and for long stretches at a time. While he lit up the stat sheet in the OHL, he has yet to find his scoring touch in the big leagues with only two goals and 12 total points this season. Even Karl Alzner has more goals. Wilson also can’t stay out of the penalty box. He has 23 minor penalties this season, the second most on the team.

Someone not on the roster

Why he makes sense: To think a team could have three players of Ovechkin and Backstrom’s quality all sharing a line is unrealistic, but not every top-line wing is an All-Star. The fact is, none of the players listed above are exactly what you would want for a top-line wing. Burakovsky and Wilson could one day develop into top-six players, but at the moment the Caps have no one on their roster good enough to play on the top unit next to Ovechkin and Backstrom. If the Caps really want to fix this problem this season, they’ll need to look elsewhere.

Why he doesn’t make sense: Top-line players are hard to find especially in the middle of the season and they don’t come cheap. Even if MacLellan was able to find an available player to fit in the top line, it would take more than just a few late-round draft picks to acquire such a player. With Filip Forsberg lighting it up in Nashville, MacLellan would be loathe to give up a top prospect and he certainly doesn’t sound like he wants to give up a high draft pick. That means you’re talking about trading roster players. Could the team afford to trade away someone like Ward or Mike Green?

If you hooked Trotz up to a lie detector test, I’m guessing he would tell you Wilson was his top choice for the top line heading into the season.

The bruising winger got his chance, but when Trotz wasn’t happy with his play, he didn’t demote him, he benched him. Trotz has not been shy about switching up the lines this season, yet he kept giving Wilson opportunities on the top line after benching him for long stretches at a time.

If Trotz thought Wilson couldn’t handle the top line or didn’t see the potential there, he would have just moved on to somebody else rather than benching him repeatedly. With Wilson spending much of his time on the fourth line now, it appears Trotz has moved on from that idea.

While Burakovsky was playing pretty well, the sudden switch to Johansson reflects a certain unease at Burakovsky’s readiness for when the games really matter hence the continued debate over the top line.

Trotz will want to turn to someone with both skill and experience who is not already plugging a hole on another line. The best player who fits that criteria is Johansson.

We may see a few more experiments between now and the end of the season, but barring some sort of trade, you’ll be seeing a lot more of Johansson on the top line. The question is how effective he will he allow himself to be playing next to Ovechkin and Backstrom.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He also is a college football and NHL blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com and has a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University. Regan 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.

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