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Shuffling the Second Line

November 22, 2013

As the second quarter of the 2013-14 season forges forward, there is a bit of a mystery plaguing the Washington Capitals. While the Caps are sitting in second place in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, and they’re tied for seventh in the league with an average of 2.91 goals per game, they have a trio of established forwards who haven’t been able to muster much in the way of even strength offense so far this season.


So far, the lack of production from the second line of Brooks Laich, Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer hasn’t been tremendously troubling to the Caps as a team. Washington has been getting enough production from other quarters.


All three players have had 20-goal seasons in the NHL, and they’ve combined for seven 20-goal seasons among them. But 22 games into the 2013-14 season, the three have combined for eight goals and only four of those have come at even strength.


“I see things,” Caps coach Adam Oates said of the unit on Thursday. “I’m a little concerned at times, a little surprised at times. It’s a little something different, a little frustration. There have been a few times where they shoot themselves in the foot. A bad pass, bad execution, Marty takes a bad penalty there in the second [period on Wednesday against Pittsburgh]; that’s uncharacteristic of him.


“Sometimes they’re doing good things, they’re just not getting rewarded. So a little bit of [them being] unlucky and a little bit that they could work harder. The same old clichés. It’s always the same answers.”


Caps captain Alex Ovechkin has scored 40 goals and totaled 60 points in his last 43 games, dating back to last season. Center Nicklas Backstrom has matched Ovechkin goal for assist over that span, putting up 40 assists and 50 points in his own last 43 games. Skating the portside of that line for the lion’s share of the time since Capitals’ top line was initially formed on March 17, Marcus Johansson has totaled 31 assists and 37 points in his last 43 games.


On opening night of the Washington Capitals 2013-14 season in Chicago, Laich and Brouwer flanked newcomer Mikhail Grabovski to form the Caps’ second line. The trio didn’t get much time to play together during the preseason; an injury limited Laich to just one exhibition contest.


Although Grabovski started the season – and his career as a Capital – with a bang that night, his opening night hat trick was accomplished without any help from his new linemates. Two of his tallies came on the power play and the third came while he happened to be on the ice with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.


Caps coach Adam Oates stuck with that Laich-Grabovski-Brouwer group for seven games, but with the team struggling to score at even strength, he juggled his lines at that stage of the campaign. Washington scored just eight even-strength goals in its first seven games, and the Laich-Grabovski-Brouwer was on the ice for only one of those.


With his team sitting at 2-5 at that stage of the season, Oates moved Grabovski to the middle of a line with Chimera and Ward; that line has been more than reasonably productive for more than a month now.


At the same juncture, Oates elevated veteran left wing Martin Erat from the fourth line to the left side of a unit with Laich in the middle and Brouwer on the right.


The results were good, initially and briefly, at least as far as the offensive end of things is concerned. In their first game together as a unit, Brouwer and Laich both scored at even strength, and Erat had three assists to help spearhead a 4-1 victory over Columbus on Oct. 19.


The threesome remained together through a four-game trip to Western Canada, but failed to produce any goals at even strength with all three players on the ice. An injury to Ovechkin in the last game of that trip prompted Oates to slide Erat up to the top line with Backstrom and Eric Fehr while the Caps’ captain coalesced. Johansson was moved to the middle of a line with Laich and Brouwer on the wings.


“I think he’s been playing good hockey,” said Oates on Oct, 31, speaking of Johansson. “I wanted to put him between Brouw and Brooksie to see if we can generate something there for him and move Brooksie back to wing, which is really the thought that I’ve always liked. I know he is very versatile, but I like him on the wing a lot. I’d like to see where we go from there.


“Because we’ve lost two in a row [to end the Western Canada trip], I was probably going to do something anyways. I think Chimmer and Wardo have been playing so well together, so I wanted to keep them together. Brooksie and Brouw have spent a lot of time together, so I wanted to do the same thing. So I figured I’d start Fehrsie and Marty with Backy and see where we go.”


The Erat-Backstrom-Fehr trio produced three goals in its two games together, but when Ovechkin returned to action for a Nov. 5 game against the Islanders at Verizon Center, he replaced Fehr on that trio and the rest of the lineup stayed intact. 


It was that morning that I asked Oates how important it was for him to start to get some offensive production out of his second line.


“Offense is great,” said Oates. “But I need consistent play in terms of I don’t want them worried about offense. I want them to get the puck in deep and work, and it’s going to happen. It’ll happen for them.


“Right now, sometimes when guys are in a ‘slump’ if you will, they’re thinking about it too much. I talked to Brooksie and he turned the puck over in the second period the other day. It happens. It happens. Their line was in the offensive zone. I don’t care about that because I know that’s not him; it’s a mistake. Get the puck deep and let your skill show itself, that’s all, consistently, game in and game out. And they’ll be great.”


Just two days later, Oates was asked about Laich specifically, and how he thought the Caps’ forward had been playing.


“For me, good,” said Oates on Nov. 7. “Stats sheet, not good. But our [penalty killing unit] is number one. He does other things and his points will come. That line hasn’t necessarily clicked 5-on-5. But he also missed a whole year [because of injury]. Although you don’t want to talk about that, he did. To me, he is playing good. He is too frustrated with himself and he’s got to chill a little bit – I talked to him about it – and just let it happen, because it will.”


Among all NHL forwards who have played in at least half of their team’s games this season, Laich’s average of 3:03 per game in shorthanded ice time ranks third in the NHL. Brouwer is 19th on that same list at 2:25 per night in shorthanded ice time. And going into Friday’s game against Montreal, the Caps rank fourth in the NHL in penalty killing.


Laich and Brouwer kill penalties together as a duo, as do Chimera and Ward.


Asked on Thursday how he felt his line had been performing, Brouwer noted that it was a loaded question. He then answered it.


“Not good enough, let’s put it that way,” said Brouwer. “We’ve had more than enough time to be comfortable with each other. That’s not the problem. We’re just not creating anything. I feel like we’re doing all right; we’re good in our zone, we’re not giving up many chances. We get pucks in their zone, we cycle the puck, but we’re not creating anything around the net. With the big bodies we have on our line and with the ability we have on our line, that’s absolutely not good enough.”


In 15 games since being formed on Oct. 19, Chimera has four goals and 12 points. Grabovski also has four goals and a dozen points, and Ward has eight goals and 11 points.


Laich has a goal and three points in his last 13 games, and he has skated more than 20 minutes in four of those contests.


Brouwer’s only even-strength point of the season was his goal against the Jackets on Oct. 19.


Erat has one goal in his 31 games with the Capitals, and he is without a goal since April 16, a span of 27 regular season games. He has found the scoresheet in just three of 22 games this season. Since recording three assists in his first game with Laich and Brouwer, Erat has recorded three assists in 14 games, none of them while skating with his current linemates.


“I say we’ve had enough time, to be honest with you,” said Brouwer. “Not that I’m using it as an excuse, but every night we’re out against the other team’s top line and it’s a little bit of a dual role where we need to be able to shut down the other team’s top line while trying to create some offense for ourselves.


“Brooksie is real good down low in our d-zone where I feel like we’re not giving them a whole lot. And then me and Marty have got to be better on the walls, getting pucks out and not slowing us down and making it so we have speed through the neutral zone. I feel like that’s where we’re getting a little but stuck and a little bit slowed down is in the neutral zone and not being able to create a good sustained forecheck if we have to dump the puck or if we have time to carry it in.”


The Caps have continued to win their share of games and each of the three players has contributed in other ways, but the puzzle is ongoing. How to get these guys going?


“To be honest, I haven’t figured it out yet,” said Laich on Thursday, “I watched the game last night when I got home and I watched it again this morning when I got up. We aren’t giving up a lot of chances.


“We’re trying to establish rules. We’re trying to make ourselves predictable and get some sort of fundamental base where if it’s one cycle, the second cycle is going to go behind the net so that the third guy high can read off that. That’s going to be automatic so that we can get some more zone time. We’re trying to establish some ground rules. But certainly it’s been a little bit frustrating so far and we need to score if our team is going to win hockey games.”


Has Oates considered juggling things up a bit?


“I have,” admitted the Caps coach. “But penalty killing is a vital part of our game. We’re winning more than we’re losing and we’re doing good things, so I don’t see it happening right now. And then you’re breaking up Chimmer and Wardo to do it. That doesn’t make sense to me right now. They’re killing as well and they stay together as well, and before you know it all of a sudden the minutes get affected. But don’t get me wrong. It is something we think about and talk about every day.”


Laich and Brouwer have found it difficult to produce offensively with Grabovski, Johansson and Erat as the third member of their line, but tonight against the Habs, there will be a slightly new wrinkle introduced.


Erat will man the middle of the line tonight against Montreal.


“Just experimenting,” says Oates. “I really think in the league now that one of the things that really gets you in trouble is turning the puck over around the offensive blueline, and just inside it. Every team backchecks so well; they get five guys back in the defensive zone. If you don’t have a sure thing off the rush, you’ve got to win battles behind their net.


“Chimmer and Wardo do a great job of it. I’ve always kind of thought Brooksie belongs there [on the wing] anyway. There’s no reason why those two guys – Brooksie and Brouw – can win those wars back there as well. And now we’ve got some meat going down the boards. It puts Marty in a difficult spot because he hasn’t played that position in a long time, but he’s also a very smart player. Maybe it will free him up a little.”


It probably can’t hurt. We’re about to see how it goes.