December 20, 2014

Grabovski signing allows Caps to be creative with line combos

The Washington Capitals move to bring in center Mikhail Grabovski this week will send ripples down – and maybe even up – the Caps active roster, and may even prevent a top prospect from breaking camp with the team. But the bottom line is that they are better equipped today to deal with the rigors of an 82-game schedule than they were when the free agency period opened up, or perhaps at any point last season.

Grabovski has strong puck-possession numbers for his career and makes players around him better. The numbers are there to consider, if math doesn’t scare you. In fact, his puck-possession numbers are so much better than the player he takes the place of, the departed Mike Ribeiro (or anyone else on the Caps’ current roster that could fill the second-line center position) that the upgrade in that area should make the loss of Ribeiro’s supreme passing skills negligible.

For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to assume Caps GM George McPhee and Marcus Johansson’s representatives work out a deal to bring the slick-skating Swede back into the fold. There isn’t a whole lot of cap space available after Karl Alzner’s new deal and Grabo’s contract, but there still is some dead weight McPhee can trim to fir Johansson into the salary structure.

So, even though D.C. is still under a blanket of summer humidity and the chill of Kettler’s air conditioning for training camp doesn’t start for a few weeks, let’s take a look at how some of the line combinations might work with the addition of the Caps newest play-driving center.

Here’s a handy infographic of my interpretation of the Caps lines and we’ll discuss them below.

LW

C

RW

Marcus Johansson

Nick Backstrom

Alex Ovechkin

Martin Erat

Mikhail Grabovski

Troy Brouwer

Jason Chimera

Brooks Laich

Joel Ward

Mathieu Perreault

Jay Beagle

Eric Fehr

Aaron Volpatti

Michael Latta

Tom Wilson

Brandon Segal

I think the top line is set in stone, with the caveat that McPhee gets Johansson under contract, something he indicated in his press conference Friday morning was still in the works, but that the right deal had to get done. It will get done.

The second line, as constructed here, should be a quality second scoring option for the Caps this upcoming season. Erat had a rough go of it at the end of last season, not really fitting in immediately after the trade, then getting hurt and missing out on the playoffs. But he’s a quality skater with good hands and should bounce back with solid – and regular – linemates. Troy Brouwer, on the other side, is coming off a real nice season goal-scoring wise. His 19 goals (in just 47 games in the lockout-shortened season) were second most in his career and should find many more quality opportunities at regular strength with this group.

The third line is the “lunchpail” group. If Laich is indeed going to play center, he profiles much better on the third line with similar grinders than he does in the top six where he would be expected to contribute more to scoring. With Chimera’s speed, and the work ethic of the three across the board, this line should see plenty of ice time against the top lines in the newly formed Metropolitan Division. In addition, Laich and Ward should see top duty on the penalty kill as well, and grouping them together on a skating line makes more sense than breaking the two apart on different lines.

The fourth line becomes something of a mish-mash though. Of the veterans available to pick from, Mathieu Perreault and Eric Fehr profile more as scorers than fourth line muckers. At least, that’s their pedigree. Jay Beagle is a defense first (and only) center and isn’t really the best pivot for the other two. But all have established themselves as NHL players and it would be surprising to see any left off the team in favor of the players in the next group – unless a player is moved between now and the start of camp, which is entirely possible considering the logjam of forwards and the salary cap ramifications.

Aaron Volpatti and Brandon Segal are fourth-line journeymen. Both are relatively capable in their low-leverage assignments but have very limited ceilings and should be valued as such. Michael Latta, the other player acquired with Erat in exchange for top prospect Filip Forsberg, can play. Just 22, he brings skill and toughness and carries himself bigger than his 6’0, 213 frame.

Many would like to see Tom Wilson, the 19-year-old  6’4″, 210 winger the Caps called up during the playoffs to add toughness against the New York Rangers, make the team out of camp. But the Caps seem to have enough depth now that they don’t have to have him in D.C. this season.

Eventually, Beagle, Latta and Wilson could combine to form a formidable and punishing fourth line for this organization, something that the team has been missing since the Bradley-Steckel-Gordon combo was broken up several seasons ago.

With the addition of Grabovski, the Capitals now have better forward depth and multiple choices of how to line up those forwards. Before, forcing Laich into a second line role caused second-guessing and questions throughout the line-up. This team might not have moved to the top of the list of Stanley Cup candidates with the acquisition of one second line center, but it certainly made for a more solid NHL roster from top to bottom – at least from the aspect of the forward lines.

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 and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. 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

%d bloggers like this: