Friday, July 22, 2016

A Pre-Pre-Season Look at Washington's Forwards

It's the dog days of the hockey calendar, the donut hole if you will, the emptiness between the end of free agency frenzy and the start of training camp and, this year, the World Cup of Hockey.

The Caps stayed calm during the draft and free agency, making only one trade and a few signings, even while the rest of the hockey world was busy doing cartwheels and backflips to the point where I'm fairly certain Wayne Gretzky is going to be Pittsburgh's 4C next year (hey, he can't be higher than Crosby, Malkin, or Bonino, that's just crazy talk).

Due to the uneventfulness of the Caps' summer thus far, examining Washington's roster is a lot more straightforward than doing so with, say, Florida's roster, or Edmonton's. However, due to the depth in the roster, it is still worthwhile to discuss how to optimize the lineup to be a true cup-contending one.

In recent years, it seems as though the Caps have been one step behind in building the perfect team.

  • Under Bruce Boudreau, the Caps were possession monsters with terrible defense and goaltending that sunk them every year. The cup winners those years, such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, had great defensive systems and above-average goaltending. 
  • Under Dale Hunter and Adam Oates, the Caps became extremely defense-conscious and relied exclusively on special teams to provide offense. The cup winners those years, Chicago and LA, used the "West-Coast" style of physical two-way hockey with a skilled Top 6, checking 3rd line and grinding 4th line.
  • Under Barry Trotz, the Caps have become more of that West-Coast-type team, using their physicality and good defensive play to spur the offense. This year's champion, Pittsburgh, utilized a skilled, speedy Top 9 and good goaltending to dominate possession and mask a porous, top-heavy defense.
If the Caps want to win the cup this year, they cannot afford to fall behind where the game is evolving. Last year the Caps were good but not great possession-wise, and that hurt them when the speed of the Penguins overmatched Washington's physicality.

Thankfully, the Caps have a roster more than capable of matching the skill of Pittsburgh's without having to surrender too much of the physicality. Here is how I would go about setting up Washington's forward lines if I were Coach Trotz.

Line 1: Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - TJ Oshie

This was the line the Caps started last year with due to Nick Backstrom recovering from surgery. Albeit in a small sample size, this line was a very, very strong possession team, and at this point in their respective careers, I truly believe that Kuznetsov is a better complement to OV than Backstrom is. While Backstrom is the superior passer straight up, Kuznetsov's skill and speed are unmatched anywhere else on the roster. Add Oshie's willingness to go to the net and above-average two-way play, and this makes for the kind of line that every team has to match their best defensemen up against. That makes it even tougher when they face...

Line 2: Andre Burakovsky - Nicklas Backstrom - Justin Williams

Williams is one of those players who dominates possession no matter where he is. The Backstrom-Williams combo was an absolute possession juggernaut in their limited time together last year, and Burakovsky also played better with Williams than without. Putting aside the advanced stats, the fit is also there style-wise. The best way for Burakovsky to develop would be to give him more time with the kinds of players that will let him hone his offensive skills. With Backstrom passing to him and Williams crowding the front of the net, Burakovsky will be able to get a lot more shot opportunities and garbage points, thus allowing him to mature and become the kind of scorer we will need as Ovechkin gets older. Additionally, Backstrom and Williams are more than good enough defensively that they can mask any deficiencies the youngster might have. This could be another dangerous skill line that gives defenses fits, thus leaving just the bottom of their defensive barrel when they face...

Line 3: Marcus Johansson - Lars Eller - Brett Connolly

I think this line is very similar to Pittsburgh's HBK line, the line that really led the Pens to the Cup this past year. Johansson is probably the fastest guy on this team with Chimera gone, so he's the speed element that Carl Hagelin was for Pitt. He's not quite as fast as Hagelin, but his better skill makes up for it. Eller played with absolutely terrible linemates in Montreal but was still able to escape with good possession numbers. He has a solid, Nick Bonino-esque two way presence that will make him the perfect 3C, and with better linemates than the garbage bin he had in Montreal, he should be able to improve upon his offensive numbers. That leaves the biggest question mark and discrepancy, Connolly vs. Phil Kessel. As of now, Connolly is nowhere close to Phil the Thrill, but given that he is a former 6th overall pick, I find it hard to believe that his offensive gifts have vanished. He put up 25 points last year in his first full NHL season while getting less than 13 minutes of average ice time. If he can get a little better this year, I think he will be a good scoring and speed presence on the third line. Besides, Eller can cover for any defensive deficiencies he has. I truly believe the success of this season depends on the third line, and this is as skilled a third line as one can get.

Line 4: Daniel Winnik - Jay Beagle - Tom Wilson

No surprise here, this is the energy checking line every team needs. While it's a disappointment to see Wilson here, I think this is the best 4th line in the league. It still has potential offensively, with players like Winnik, Beagle and Wilson who could still be Top 9 guys.
Now, this being said, it is extremely likely that Wilson plays on the third line, especially given the bridge contract he just signed. Although I think that this would not optimize the lines correctly, if Wilson can become a better offensive player and someone can step up and be a good checking-type forward, it would still work just as well.

In conclusion, the Caps have the personnel to use the style of play that will lead them to success. It just remains to be seen if they will do it.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will dive into the depths of Washington's defensemen.

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