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The Even-Strength Problem

It may only be three games into the NHL season, but the understatement of the season might be that the Capitals are not good on even strength.  Through the first three games, the Caps have been outscored 8-3 during 5-on-5 play.  That does not include Marian Hossa's empty netter or Lee Stempniak's 4-on-4 goal.  Oh, and those three that the Caps have scored: Grabovski on a 2-on-1, Carrick on a breakaway following a penalty kill, and Ovechkin off of a faceoff.  They have yet to score from actually establishing offensive zone pressure.  Their power play very well might be the best in the league, but you are going to spend much more time even than you will on the man advantage. 

The main issue is the redundancy of the line combinations.  Let's start with the top line of Johansson, Backstrom, and Ovechkin.  Yes, it is true that Ovechkin's resurgence coincided with the line being assembled, but I'm not sold that the two had a lot to do with one another.  Alex Ovechkin might have scored 32 goals last season, but only 16 came even strength.  After the line was assembled, Ovechkin scored 23 goals, but 9 were still on the power play (where he also was still on left wing).  The line might be one of the most skilled lines in the NHL, but there is a lack of size there.  Ovechkin provides some, but it's best not to have your top scoring threat also responsible for freeing up space.  In the past, Ovechkin has done his best work opposite the likes of Viktor Kozlov and Mike Knuble, neither of which are top skilled forwards.

The second line, Laich, Grabovski, Brouwer, is almost the opposite.  Laich and Brouwer are both power forward types with little skill or speed.  They've both become successful goal scorers by parking themselves around the crease looking for deflections and rebounds.  Take them away from the net, and their scoring ability begins to decline.  Their lack of speed also acts as a bit of hindrance to the speedy Grabovski.  Neither Brouwer nor Laich are going to be able to consistently feed Grabovski.  The result?  Grabovski has to try to create on his own.  The second line has arguably been the least productive in this short season.

The third line, Chimera, Fehr, Ward, actually are in decent shape, they just can't finish.  Out of all of the lines, they have had some of the best sustained pressure.  They control the boards well, wearing down the other teams.  There are a couple problems though:

  • They have yet to turn the board control into quality chances, combining for just nine shots.  Not sure Jason Chimera is a 10+ goal scorer anymore.  Joel Ward has never been a consistent scoring threat (he had actually seen his goal numbers decline until last season's two goal improvement).  Eric Fehr showed glimpses of his old form in the preseason, but we haven't seen it in the regular season.
  • They are a combined -15.  I'm actually going to give them a pass on this one for now as the defense has been the main problem.

The fourth line, Erat, Beagle, Wilson, frankly hasn't had enough time on the ice to show what they are capable of.  But I think almost everyone can agree that Martin Erat should not be skating on the fourth line.  This is only coupled by George McPhee's statement at the Caps Convention that he didn't believe fourth liners should make more than one million (he was talking about the organization's decision not to re-sign Matt Hendricks).  Martin Erat makes $4.5 million and consistently puts up 50+ points.

To me, this is all about Adam Oates' desire to not ever have a player play on their off-wings.  As far as left-handed wingers, the Caps have Johansson, Laich, Chimera, and Erat.  Arguments can be made that none of them belong on the fourth line.  Even though Erat is left handed, he has played almost his entire career on the right side and has had continued success doing it.  I can understand switching a player if they struggle (as in Ovechkin's case), but if it isn't broke, why try to fix it? 

 If you take the handedness of the player out of the equation, I'd argue the following lines are a good place to start.

Brouwer-Backstrom-Ovechkin
Laich-Grabovski-Erat
Chimera-Johansson-Fehr
Ward-Beagle-Wilson

This is not a perfect line-up, but I think it's one that balances out the lines a little better and allows players' skill sets to contribute.  The biggest argument I see against it is Johansson has not had the best success at center.  If Adam Oates and the coaching staff can teach Eric Fehr, Martin Erat, and Troy Brouwer (okay, he didn't actually play center, but he took 232 faceoffs last season) to play center, then they should be able to refine Johansson's center game.  

Regardless, it will be interesting to see the lines that Oates implements against Carolina on Thursday.  In the past, he has shown more patience with line combinations than most coaches (read: Bruce Boudreau) and the season is young.  

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  Tags: washington+capitals

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About F Street Faithful

Welcome to the home of the F Street Faithful, run by Matthew Tate.  This is a go-to blog for all things related to the Washington Capitals.  The F Street Faithful is 5% news and 95% breaking down the news.

In the past I have written for several other sports blogs as well as the college newspaper while at  York College of Pennsylvania.  I am a graduate of York College of Pennsylvania but am based out of Southern Maryland. 

You can follow me on twitter @FStreetTate but I must warn that I do tweet about more than hockey. You can also e-mail me at any time at overtheboard@gmail.com.