Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
Marcus Johansson is currently in his 5th NHL season. Johansson is in the second year of a 2 year, $4 million deal and is set to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Johansson is also having somewhat of a breakout season, as his nine goals in twenty nine games have him on pace to easily surpass his career high of 14 set in 2011-12.
So, what will it cost the Caps to re-sign Johansson?
To help gauge this, I’m going to take a look at some players who have put up similar numbers to Johansson during their first five seasons in the league. To start, here’s a list of forwards since 2009 that have, in their first five seasons, done the following:
1) played in 250 or more games
2) scored 40 or more goals
3) totaled 120 or more points
4) skated more than 4000 minutes
Marcus Johansson falls in this group. It’s important to note that Johansson’s numbers are incomplete, as they include this season. So, while the numbers will change between now and the end of the season, I’m looking at this in terms of extending Johansson now.
I’ve picked out a few players to help find a value for Johansson. The stats are for the players’ first 5 seasons.
-Marchand was more productive than Johansson through five seasons. However, he also signed his deal a year earlier, and thus, was a year further away from being a UFA. Marchand’s previous deal was worth $1 million more than Johansson’s over the 2 years. Given these two factors, Marchand’s average annual value of $4.5 can serve as a soft ceiling for Johansson’s deal.
-Ennis’ productions in his first five seasons is similar to Johansson’s, but in less games. His previous deal was worth $1.65 million more than Johansson’s over the life of the 2 years. He signed his deal during his season 5, where Johansson is now. So, he was more productive than Johansson, had more ice time than Johansson, and was making more on his previous deal than Johansson. Safe to say, Johansson should definitely get less than Ennis’ $4.6 million per year.
-Desharnais also has production very similar to MoJo’s. But he signed his deal after 3 seasons and was making far less than Johansson on his previous deal. Given that, it’s easy to see Johansson getting more than the $3.5 million average annual value of Desharnais’ current deal.
-Grabner is another guy that signed an extension long before season 5. However, his production through 5 seasons is pretty similar to Johansson’s. Given the time at which Grabner signed his extension, he, like Desharnais, gives us two players that Johansson will certainly earn more than.
So, what does this all mean?
I think Johansson will likely get around $4 million per year. I’ve gone back and forth on whether he will get $16 or $17 million on a 4 year deal. Given the improvement in his play so far this season, I’m putting down Johansson for a 4 year, $17 million deal (cap hit of $4.25 per season).
Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
Marcus Johansson’s ice time vs Tampa last night, the second straight game he’s been below the 14:00 mark and fifth time in the past six games his ice time has decreased. The third line has been great since the return of Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera is rejuvenated and helping the fourth line. But Johansson has taken big strides forward this season and it would be a shame to see that stunted by limiting his ice time.
The average time on ice per game for Joel Ward, 4th among all Caps forwards behind Nick Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Troy Brouwer. I like Joel Ward and think he’s an effective hockey player. But he’s a bottom-6 forward. Why is Joel Ward the 4th most used forward by Barry Trotz? He’s also 4th in terms of 5v5 ice time, so it’s not as if his penalty kill time is inflating his numbers.
The average 5v5 ice time per game for Backstrom this season, which leads all NHL forwards. His linemate Ovechkin is second. Trotz looks like he’s going to ride his two horses as much as he can. It’s easy to like this strategy.
Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
According to Pierre LeBrun, Caps GM Brian MacLellan is looking to make some trades. The Caps have looked a bit stale lately, save for spurts of inspired and creative play such as the first 40 minutes in Saturday’s game against the Devils, so it’s not shocking the new GM may want to shake things up. Here are two players MacLellan likely will be asked about but shouldn’t trade.
Johnasson has already bested his goal totals from the two previous seasons with 9 goals through 25 games. Johansson has 8 even strength goals this season. He had 5 even strength goals in the last two seasons combined. I understand if people think that dealing Johansson now would be selling high.
I’m not convinced of that. I think that Johnasson very well may have taken a major step forward in his development and that the improvements in his play and production could be long lasting. While his shooting% (17.6%) is likely to come back closer to his career shooting% (12.8%), Johansson is going to continue to score at an improved rate because he is shooting the puck so much more.
As you can see, Johansson is shooting way more this season. In situations where he used to force passes, he is now firing pucks on net. As a result, he’s now putting close to 8 shots on per goal per 60 minutes of ice time. In the two previous seasons he averaged about four per 60 minutes of ice time.
In terms of shots per game this season, Johannson is averaging 2.04 shots. If he were to maintain this over an 82 game season, he would have 167 shots on goal, shattering his previous career high of 107 he set last season. If, Johansson were to pump 167 shots on net in a season and shoot at his career average of 12.8%, he would score 21 goals, which crushes his career high of 14 set in 2011-12.
Marcus Johansson is finally producing like a legitimate top-6 player. It would be a mistake to trade him. Instead, the Caps should look to extend him, as he is a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
Mike Green is an elite NHL defenseman and the Caps are a better team with him than without him. He can make glaring defensive mistakes at times, but you’re wrong if you think this makes him a bad player.
Here’s a chart Peter from RMNB made that was used in one of my posts on that site that shows Green has consistently made the Caps a better team when he’s on the ice.
As you can see, 2012 was the only season when Green didn’t help the Caps possession. Other than 2012, the Green has made the Caps a much better team when he’s on the ice. For a more in-depth look at why Green is irrefutably awesome, check out this article I wrote about him over on RMNB.
I understand he’s injury-prone and that his salary demands could be tricky for a team up against the cap. But the Caps will be better off if they find a way to keep Mike Green.
In my next post, I’ll look at two players the Caps should trade, which can help free up some of the cap space needed to keep Mike Green.
This wasn’t the best weekend of hockey for the Caps. They dropped both games and didn’t look particularly great in either one. There was one shift in particular against New Jersey that was especially bad, quite possibly the worst shift of the Caps season.
At the 2:29 mark of the second period, the Devils brought the puck into the Caps zone. The puck wouldn’t leave the zone for another 1:11, in which time the Devils piled up 10 shots attempts.
J.P. noticed it. I noticed it. We all noticed it. It was possibly the worst shift of the season for the Caps and it somehow didn’t end up in the back of their net. There were two bad decisions that during the 1:11 in the Caps zone that prolonged the terrible shift.
Above is 3 seconds after the Devils entered the zone, already with one shot attempt. The puck comes around the boards to Troy Brouwer whose momentum is carrying him towards the goal line. Brouwer’s best decision here, given his momentum, not having the puck completely corralled, and the pressure coming from his right, would be to poke the puck behind the net where Matt Niskanen could gather the puck in. Given the direction of the momentum of the two Devils’ skaters down low in the zone, Niskanen would have more time than Brouwer to fully gain control of the puck. Worst case scenario, Niskanen could bang the puck around the boards.
Instead, Brouwer tries to take the puck behind the goal line himself and is stripped of the puck, as you can see below.
The Caps did not regain possession for another 53 seconds, during which time the Devils generated 6 shot attempts. Despite the fact that he had a better option, the turnover by Brouwer wasn’t especially egregious, but it sure was costly in terms of shot attempts and time in the defensive zone.
53 seconds later Niskanen, who is exhausted, gets the puck behind the net.
Plenty of time to get the puck out, right? Wrong. Niskanen struggles to get control of the puck and then seems bewildered, probably from exhaustion, when he does get the puck cleanly on his stick. As a result, the above turns into the picture below.
So while a bouncing puck and exhaustion make it understandable that Niskanen muffled the clearing attempt (these kind of things happen over the course of 82 games), his approach was questionable from the time he got the puck. He seems intent on pushing the puck along to Andre Burakovsky, but given the impending and then eventual pressure of the Devils’ forechecker, the safer and smarter play would have been to throw the puck behind the net, where Karl Alzner would have had approximately all day to get the breakout started and the Caps headed towards a much needed line change.
Andre Burakovsky could have been more helpful to Niskanen but chose to remain on the half-wall, likely because he was in need of oxygen and water.
13 seconds and 3 additional shot attempts later, a rebound goes to the high slot, where Marcus Johansson gathers in the puck and exits the zone, thus bringing to an end the worst shift of the Caps season.
Editor’s Note: This is a new column in which we will look at 3 Caps-related numbers or stats with a brief commentary on each number. As always, if you have questions or feedback, feel free to let us know in the comment or on Twitter. Thanks for reading.
Our first number, 97.75, represents the Caps PDO through the first 12 games of the 2014-15 season. For those who are unfamiliar with PDO, it is the found by combining a team’s 5-0n-5 shooting percentage and save percentage. In short, it regresses towards 100. So, a team with a PDO below 100 is thought to be getting bad “puck luck” while a team with a PDO above 100 is thought to be getting the good bounces. (For those who want a more nuanced definition of PDO, here’s a great article.)
So, why is this number significant? The Caps’ current PDO of 97.75 is the lowest of any regular season PDO on record for the team since 2002. This isn’t to say that the team hasn’t had 12 game stretches like this. But it does say that if this “puck luck” continues for the Caps, we would be able to call this the unluckiest Caps team on record.
Yes, this team has had some defensive lapses. And maybe we need our goalies to come up with some bigger saves. But the Caps will see better results simply by continuing to do the same things they are doing. Their puck luck will change. I’d be willing to bet a large sum of money or drinks on the fact that the Caps PDO will be above 97.75 at the end of the season.
Photo by Amanda Bowen, RRGB Photography
The number of shots per game Marcus Johansson is averaging so far this season. This is up from a career mark of 1.29 shots per game. This would lead to 44 more shots over an 82 game stretch. If Johansson were to shoot his career mark of 12.7%, this would mean 5.58 more goals per 82 games for him. This is not insignificant. We are talking 5-6 more goals per 82 games from #90 by doing nothing else but continuing to shoot the puck more. If Johansson keeps his current shot per game pace, without shooting any more accurately, and plays in 82 games, he will have 18 goals this season, which is great for a guy with a previous career high of 14. KEEP SHOOTING MARCUS!
Points per 60 minutes of PP time for Evgeny Kuznetsov. This not only leads all Caps forwards, but is 8th among all NHL forwards who have 13+ minutes of PP time so far this season. Small sample, sure, but if he can keep up a pace anywhere near this, the Caps PP will be relentless this season, with two high octane units.
We didn’t post very much last season. Personally, I didn’t post much the past two seasons as I navigated my way through Grad school while working a full-time job. But we’ve started posting more this summer and plan to be much more active this season. We’ve even added a new writer, Margaret Stuart, who you should follow on Twitter. So thanks for reading. Check back often throughout the season for more frequent posting than last season.
There is no shortage of season previews available on the Caps. Given that, this preview isn’t meant to be an exhaustive recap of the summer or of story lines certain to arise during the season. Instead, I wanted to give answers and opinions on a few things.
Additionally, some of our recent posts have covered preview-ish type material.
First, here’s a question we got on Twitter
Pat Holden: I’d expect a defensemen to get dealt before a forward, but sticking to the subject of the question, my guess would be Marcus Johansson. Johansson has had 4 seasons to find his niche here in Washington and he’s yet to do so. Barry Trotz has already said that Johansson will be used at wing this year, not the greatest vote of confidence for a guy on a team lacking Center depth who was drafted to play Center. If Johansson doesn’t have a coming of age prior to the return of Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson, he’s going to be fighting to get a sweater each night. Johansson is an asset who probably has some value on the trade market. If he can’t realize that value here in Washington and becomes scratched on a regular basis, he will be dealt.
Margaret Stuart: The easy and accurate answer is Marcus Johansson. A quick look at the roster sets him apart from his teammates, and not in a positive way. Who else is a viable trade candidate? The Caps can afford to ship him off–he doesn’t fill a specific, in-demand need. Every other forward on the team has a clearly-defined role, even if his place among the lineup is undefined. Johansson, on the other hand, lacks this clarity.
Is he a center or a left wing? Having scored eight goals last season, where does he fit on a team in need of secondary scoring? His lack of physicality isn’t ideal for a bottom-six player, and his even-strength production doesn’t merit top-six minutes.
With a cap hit of $2 million, Johansson won’t be difficult to take on. A change of scenery might benefit Johansson, although it’s unclear what exactly a team would acquire him for. His all-around play is solid, and his relative Corsi was positive. The latter will help the Caps shop Johansson, given the rise of advanced stats. But Johansson deserves another shot to slot into the lineup, and a handful of new coaches could mold him into the type of player the Caps can’t afford to lose. If this isn’t the case, he’s in the last year of a two-year deal–he’s a natural choice for trade bait.
One optimistic prediction about the season
Pat Holden: Braden Holtby will be widely considered an elite goalie around the NHL by the end of the season. (Peter from RMNB covered this in his predictions. I pinky swear this was in my draft of this post before reading that. I was going to remove it from my post but decided not to. Because really, Holtby’s play took such an undeserved beating last year that it doesn’t hurt to hammer home the point that he’s quite good).
Last season, Holtby caught a lot of heat for the Capitals problems. Last season, ultra-tinkerer Adam Oates messed with his style and Holtby played in front of a defense often comprised of multiple players who should have been in Hershey or the press box. Yet, Holtby still finished 8th in 5-on-5 save% of all goalies who played in 41 games or more. His 92.89 mark finished just below Henrik Lundqvist, who posted a 93.06%. Was Holtby shaky at times last year? Absolutely. But Holtby wasn’t the problem in Washington. In fact, Holtby has never been the problem.
Holtby is now being coached by Goalie Whisperer Mitch Korn. The defense in front of him is stronger than any other defense during his time here in Washington. This is Holtby’s year.
One less optimistic prediction about the season
Pat Holden: Joel Ward, meet regression to the mean. Regression to the mean, Joel Ward.
Ward was great last season and figures to play a big role on the Caps 3rd line again this year. However, if you’re expecting Ward to match the 24 goals and 25 assists that he piled up last season, you’re going to be disappointed. Ward shot 18% last year, which is well above his career mark of 11.1%, and about 10% above the league average. Ward’s PDO of 102.66 last year is certain to come back down closer to 100. This is not a knock on Ward or to say that he won’t play well this year. Ward was a good player last year and will almost certainly be a good player again this year. But he was also lucky last year. That luck is likely to regress a bit and it’s not because of a drop in quality of Ward’s play.
For example, last year Ward had 133 SOG and shot 18% for 24 goals If Ward again manages 133 SOG again but shoots at his career mark of 11.1%, he will score 15 goals. Ward will still be a contributor to this team, but his offensive totals are all but certain to drop.
Margaret Stuart: Caps trade Green and get little in return. To state the obvious, defense has long been an Achilles heel for the Caps. MacLellan addressed this weakness by signing Niskanen and Orpik to long-term deals. The moves raised questions about Green’s role with the team, given the capabilities of the former Pittsburgh defensemen.
Green is the epitome of an offensive defenseman, but the past few seasons have signified a drop-off in his scoring abilities. Enter the fancy-stats argument: last season, Green had some of the highest possession numbers on a lousy possession team. If the Caps wanted to trade Green tomorrow, they’d find some takers. His stock has gradually fallen, but he’s still a valuable asset.
What could the Caps get in return for Green?
Worst-case scenario, they receive a meaningless draft pick or two, coupled with a bottom-four NHL defenseman. The Caps have enough budding young blueliners in their system to fill that role. Calling for trades is premature, but the Caps should receive a high-quality offensive talent in return for Green. Parting ways with No. 52 means losing a veteran leader and weakening the defense. But if the Caps are struggling enough to trade him, they probably can’t afford to be choosers.
Where will the Caps finish this year?
Pat Holden: I’m not big on predictions of where a team will finish in the standings, but this is a season preview so I feel some sort of obligation to provide one. The only team in the division that I think will definitely finish above the Caps are the Penguin (sorry!). But the only team in the division I think the Caps are certain to finish above are the Hurricanes. I’d say it’s unlikely that the Caps will finish above the Rangers. In the end, I think the Caps will end up in a tight battle for 3rd in the division/a Wild Card spot with the Islanders, Devils, Blue Jackets and Flyers. How’s that for vague? Fine. In the end, the Caps will grab the 2nd Wild Card spot in the East with 95 points (41-28-13).
Margaret Stuart: The Caps will finish among the top-four Metro teams. The Metropolitan Divison is unique in that it lacks a truly elite team. The Penguins are still in the running for a Cup, but they’re arguably on their way to becoming fringe contenders. Even the Rangers, who made it to the Cup Final, look weaker on paper than they did a year ago. Beyond these “frontrunners,” the rest of the division is up for grabs–only Carolina is poised to be a true basement-dweller.
If the Caps can patch up the 2C situation, their revamped blueline makes them a far greater threat. And the penalty kill and shots-allowed, two areas in need of fixing, are being addressed. The preseason is…well, the preseason, but it’s yielded mostly positive results thus far.
On the offensive front, Burakovsky may be the team’s most pleasant surprise, providing secondary scoring to supplement Ovechkin. If Trotz & Co. can elicit a Young Guns-era performance from Green, that alone is a red flag to other teams.
Given their improved play in both zones, I predict the Caps will finish fourth in the division, and their 96 points will qualify them for the postseason via the first wild-card spot. Their record will be 42-28-12. (Bear in mind predictions are notoriously inaccurate.)
Thanks again for reading and be sure to come back and visit us often this season.
Photo by Amanda Bowen, RRGB Photography
In previous posts, I’ve discussed certain line combinations and made a case for why some make sense and others should be avoided. One of the conclusions I’ve made is that Eric Fehr should be on the first line alongside Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Another post looked at the fact that Troy Brouwer should be a winger on the 2nd line and Brooks Laich should center the 3rd line.
Barry Trotz has said that the 2nd line center job is essentially a battle between Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov and that the loser of the battle will likely be shifted to the wing. So where does the loser fit best? All sample sizes involving Kuznetsov, he of the 17 NHL games, are entirely too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, so I’m not going to focus on him for now. Instead, I want to look at Johansson.
I’m skeptical of his ability to be an effective 2C for any team that hopes to compete this season. Johansson is an alright player, but he’s yet to become the player the Caps hoped he would when they made him a 1st round pick. But even if he loses the 2C job, if Trotz sticks to what he says and puts Johnasson on the wing, it’s hard to believe he won’t be on the 2nd line (or maybe the first, but I’m going to hold out hope Fehr gets that spot). The 3rd line wingers are almost certainly Jason Chimera and Joel Ward and it’s hard to see Johansson demoted to the 4th line in favor of any of the remaining wingers.
As I’ve said, Kuznetsov’s sample sizes are too small to draw much from. So, if Brouwer and Johansson end up on the 2nd line together (whether MoJo is a C or W), is this a duo that’s likely to be part of an effective 2nd line? Here’s a look at their CF% together and when apart.
Brouwer and Johansson together are sub 47%. This is not a good start to the makings of an effective 2nd line. That’s not to say a change in systems or a boost in chemistry from the 3rd player on the line couldn’t help things, but this is starting behind the 8-ball, so to speak.
But what’s really interesting here is that Johansson’s CF% isn’t good with or without Brouwer (Brouwer’s overall CF% w/out Johansson is solid). In his career, over 3411 minutes of play, Marcus Johansson is only a 47.6% CF player. Johansson has played 191 or more minutes with 20 different players during his NHL career. He has a CF% of 50 or greater with just one of these players, Nick Backstrom. Only 1 of these players, Jay Beagle, has seen an increase in CF% with Johansson than without him. In general (as in, 95% of the time in our sample) Johansson is a sub-50% CF player and drags down his teammate’s possession numbers.
But, a closer look is cause for some hope when it comes to Johansson’s possession. Here’s his career FenClose rel numbers by season.
So, after being a negative possession player, relative to his team in his first two seasons, Johansson has been a positive possession player in the two seasons since. This won’t necessarily show up as a +50% CF since Johansson was a positive possession player on relatively weak possession teams. This isn’t a knock on Johansson, in fact it’s a credit to him for doing more with less, so to speak.
What to expect moving forward
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Johansson is only entering his age-24 season (determined by the player’s age on Feb 1st of that season). Since 1998, 4 other players have played at least as many career minutes as Johansson (4327) with his point total (139) or less by the end of their age 23 season. Taking a look at these players in their age-24 seasons can help us see if it’s realistic to expect any sort of jump in production from Johansson this year or if he is what he is at this point, so to speak. Here’s each player’s goals, assists, and points per 60 minutes entering their age-24 season, which Johansson is about to enter.
Johansson has been the most productive player/60 minutes of play among those who met the criteria. It should be noted that all players on this list are former first round picks. Further, all of these players except Brown are listed as Centers. But what about production when these players enter their age-24 season? Can it tell us anything about what to expect from Johansson this year?
|Through age-23 season||0.55||0.83||1.38|
While the goals and assists were distributed a little differently, the overall production is within .02 P/60, an insignificant difference. So, those expecting a drastic uptick in production from Johansson will likely be disappointed.
But, his improved relative possession play over the past two seasons is encouraging. Can this result in better possession from him and Brouwer a a duo? I’m not sure, but my guess is that we’re going to find out, whether Johansson plays as the C or W on the line.
To recap this and other posts, here are the conclusions I’ve reached about the Caps lines so far:
Johansson (as W or C)-?-Brouwer
I’ll have some thoughts on the 4th line next week.
War on Ice, Hockey Analysis, and Hockey Reference all used as resources for this article
Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography
Barry Trotz has not been shy in heaping praise upon Nick Backstrom since becoming head coach of the Caps. Trotz has also noted how under appreciated he feels Backstrom is around the league. I think Backstrom is deeply appreciated by Caps fans, generally recognized as one of the most important players on this team. But, just in case you forgot about how great Backstrom is, here’s a reminder.
Backstrom’s career usage chart displays a few things,none of which are surprising, but that I think are cool to see in visual form. The first is that he’s only been a negative possession player relative to his teammates once in his career. That is was in 2008-09, and it was by less than 1/4 of a %. Other than that, the Caps, season-by-season, have always been a better possession team with Backstrom on the ice than without him. Backstrom has also faced pretty stiff competition, almost always finishing a season north of 29.2% TOI competition. That’s what we’d expect to find from a 1C who is often deployed with Alex Ovechkin.
Much has been made about the fact that Alex Ovechkin will likely start the season back at LW. It’s a fairly safe assumption that Backstrom will line up at Center on a line with Ovechkin. What potential RW would benefit the most by being centered by Backstrom? And what player would Backstrom most benefit from having on his right side?
I’m making a few assumptions in my considerations. One is that Brooks Laich and Evgeny Kuznetsov are not candidates, as I expect them to fill the 3C and 2C spots, respectively. I’m also assuming that most any winger is eligible. It is safe to assume that Trotz won’t be as obsessed with handedness as Adam Oates was, right? I’ve also excluded Tom Wilson from my list of viable options to play alongside Backstrom because their sample size together is minuscule, so there’s nothing to learn from their history together. Here’s how the remaining options for Trotz stack up, measured in Corsi For with and without Backstrom. These are career numbers.
A note on the sample size here. Minutes with Backstrom are as follows: Brouwer 758:32, Johansson 991:41, Ward 88:53, Fehr 391:26, Chimera 314:37.
Here’s how Backstrom fared with and without each player listed above.
The “with” sample sizes here are obviously the same.
Brouwer and Johansson have by far the biggest sample sizes playing with Backstrom. It’s clear that Brouwer and Backstrom are not a good match as they both see their possession numbers plummet when playing together. Johansson sees his possession numbers improve with Backstrom, but he’s dead weight to Backstrom, who sees a significant jump in possession away from Johansson. Jason Chimera also appears to be a poor fit with Backstrom.
Joel Ward’s sample size with Backstrom is quite small, but the results are decent. That being said, his skill set is one that thrives on a 3rd line and is likely not suited to play with the likes of Backstrom and Ovechkin on a regular basis.
That bring us to Eric Fehr. Fehr’s success with Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski is something we’ve already talked about here in other posts. Fehr’s possession benefits from playing with Backstrom and Backstrom’s possession drops the least when playing with Fehr out of all of the RW options. Long story short, if Eric Fehr is not playing RW alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom on opening night, I’ll consider it a mistake by Trotz.
Nicklas Backstrom is awesome, isn’t he? And boy, an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr line on opening night sure does make a lot of sense.
All stats pulled from War on Ice and Hockey Analysis
Barry Trotz’s projected lines are still a mystery, but his Q&A with Dan Rosen shed light on possible combinations. Trotz revealed who he’d like to keep on the wing and try at center, in addition to his vision for the Caps’ fourth line. With this new information in mind, here’s a look at mixing and matching certain players.
Who will play alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom?
While Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have two of the top line’s three slots locked up, questions still abound. Will Trotz play Ovechkin as a right or left wing? Once that’s decided, who will complete the trio?
Marcus Johansson typically played with Ovechkin and Backstrom, but Trotz plans to try him at center. Should Johansson perform well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see him playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom–he’s a viable candidate for second-line center, and it’s possible that Trotz will move Ovechkin back to left wing to account for the Caps’ surplus of right wings.
Should Ovechkin line up on the left, Troy Brouwer seems like the Caps’ go-to guy. He’s seen plenty of ice time as a second-liner, so making the transition to top-line minutes is feasible. However, the majority of his production came on the power play–a problem that plagued Ovechkin and Backstrom. Furthermore, Brouwer’s Corsi-for with Backstrom was 49.5%.
So, is Brouwer really the best fit to play right wing on the top line? Given the excess of right wings in the Caps’ system, I say no. Throw in Trotz’s belief that Tom Wilson should play top-nine minutes, and it’s almost difficult to see where Brouwer fits into the equation. He could very well be a trade candidate. Second-line center, anyone?
This leaves Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, and Wilson. Trotz expressed his desire to keep Ward on a line with Jason Chimera, so Fehr and Wilson are probably the most likely options. Wilson isn’t a likely choice, given his relative inexperience. On the other hand, playing Fehr and Ovechkin saw time together as wings and boasted a Corsi-for of 50.9%. Fehr and Backstrom are an even more promising combination, as their career Corsi-for clocks in at 54.4%. (Last season’s 47.6% was a bump in what’s been an otherwise smooth road.) Statistics aside, Fehr is a creative player and good skater. He can get the puck to his teammates and capitalize on chances himself. Should Ovechkin return to left wing, I’d like to see Fehr as one of his linemates.
What if Ovechkin remains a right wing?
Of course, the above scenarios assume that Trotz doesn’t keep Ovechkin at right wing. An opening still remains, so who fills it? We can rule Johansson out for aforementioned reasons, thus leaving Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brooks Laich. Note: even if Andre Burakovsky cracks the lineup, I’m skeptical of how he’ll handle top-line minutes during his rookie season. As I said earlier, Trotz would be foolish to split up Ward and Chimera. However, he stated his intentions to try Kuznetsov and Laich (assuming he’s healthy) down the middle. Both are promising options.
However, someone will be the odd man out, and in turn, likely play an important role on the second line. The need for a 2C is no secret, and Johansson could trump Kuznetsov and Laich in that department. If he can’t find his scoring touch as a winger, he might be more successful at setting up plays than finishing them. He also has previous experience playing center and tallied 36 assists last seasons, second only to Backstrom.
If Trotz wants to use Kuznetsov to supplement the top line’s offense, he’s narrowed the search down to Laich and Johansson. Since there are no guarantees of Laich’s health, Johansson might be the better option–it’s hard to find good centermen, and the Caps need consistency down the middle. Johansson’s also in the last year of his contract, and his role with the Caps is still uncertain. If he succeeds as a 2C, he’s made a strong case for a contract extension.
Where do Burakovsky and Wilson fit?
Two players I haven’t discussed in detail are Burakovsky and Wilson. Trotz has made known his plans for each: Burakovsky is a possibility down the middle, while Wilson should see top-nine minutes. The former will, at the very least, begin his season in Hershey. If he sees NHL ice time, I’d prefer it to be at his natural position, left wing. If the Caps wish to mold Burakovsky into a center, Hershey is the best place to make that happen. A player of his talents shouldn’t be stuck on a checking line.
That statement also applies to Wilson, who saw minimal ice time last season. Since Chimera and Ward will likely comprise two-thirds of the third line, that leaves an opening for Wilson on the second line (granted, Brouwer would have to be playing on the top line or with a different team for that to happen.) Wilson cannot spend another season trapped on the fourth line, and it appears as though Trotz will give him the chance to step up offensively with increased minutes and tougher competition.
There are many ways to win consistently in the NHL. One of those can be by having the right talent, another by having a great system and sticking to it. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s offense or defense-oriented or a little of both, a team with a solid approach that plays it well game-after-game can sometimes make up for talent issues on a roster. And even teams with the best players need a good plan.
In this lockout-shortened season that came without a proper training camp and preseason, it’s apparent that the Washington Capitals could have used that time to learn their new coach’s system. It’s also clear that Adam Oates and the Caps could use a bit more talent in certain areas, one of them being within the six forwards on their first two lines.
With the Caps coming off a 4-0 win in Winnipeg Thursday night, now might seem like an odd time to talk about one of the areas where the team is lacking. But, if the Caps keep winning and make the playoffs or even just miss it, the issue could rear its head again. And, going into next season, it will likely need to be addressed for the team to become a true threat.
In their top six forwards, the Caps have three very talented skill players in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro. They also have several wingers who are top six material as a compliment to these players.
For example, Brooks Laich, just back from an injury, is a talented and capable left wing that the team can try pairing up with the Ovechkin-Backstrom duo. 22 year-old Marcus Johansson has struggled to develop further as a player while showing promise at times in his still-young NHL career, but he may be another who can be plugged in alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin as he was on Thursday.
Matt Hendricks has also been tried on the top line, though he may deliver better value skating on a lower one. And it appears that Wojtek Wolski and Jason Chimera are done, at least presently, getting time with the top unit.
On the second line with Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer is a solid choice at right wing. With 11 goals and 21 points in 29 games this season, Brouwer is putting up numbers that justify his $3.6 million cap hit and the move the team made to acquire him two summers ago.
On the left side of the second line, Oates can plug-in any number of players, such as he did with Laich last night while skating Johnasson in that spot on the top line. Eric Fehr is also an option as are some others. However, with their current roster of players, it is here on that left side of Ribeiro that the Caps run into the hole in their top six.
Washington has good players that can be used in this second line role, but they are guys that, when put in a top six spot, should mostly be used to complement a skilled duo. The top line currently has Backstrom and Ovechkin. The second has Ribeiro and needs someone else in the highly skilled department, even with Brouwer putting up some nice numbers this season.
In past years, the Caps had a legitimate goal-scoring threat on the left side of their second line in Alexander Semin, but he rarely had the opportunity to play with a second line-caliber center. The Caps now have that center in Ribeiro, but let Semin go and have yet to properly replace him.
Should Washington play well the next week or so and decide to become buyers at this season’s April 3 trade deadline, a deal for a sniping or highly skilled left wing should be high on their list. And going into October and the 2013-14 season, it’s an issue they should eliminate if they are to become a top team again.
The Caps could get by without this player, if they execute Oates’ system consistently. But even then, to take the team’s play to the next level and make them tougher to shut down, the Caps could use someone to fill this gap in their top six.
- The case for trading Mike Ribeiro (brookslaichyear.com)
- A look at next season’s Washington Capitals defense and Jeff Schultz (brookslaichyear.com)
- Soon might be the time for Caps to trade goaltender Michal Neuvirth (brookslaichyear.com)