COMMENTARY| Despite having a full offseason and training camp, it has been another slow start for the Washington Capitals. A major reason for their 1-4 record are the mistakes head coach Adam Oates is making with his line combinations.
These are the regular lines we have seen through the first five games: Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the first line; Brooks Laich, Mikhail Grabovski, and Troy Brouwer on the second; Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward on the third; and Martin Erat, Michael Latta or Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson.
The obvious question is what is Erat doing on the fourth line?
Erat has been a consistent producer throughout his career averaging over 40 points per season. His skill set is more suited for a top six player than the fourth line. While offensive depth may be a strength for the Capitals, Erat is not playing behind players who are better or more productive. Johansson, Laich, and Chimera are all playing above him at left wing. It would not be surprising to see Erat play in front of any of these players, yet he is at the bottom of the depth chart.
Erat has been sharing a line with Tom Wilson and it is possible Oates could be looking for him to serve as a mentor, but that is a complete waste of his talent. Right now, the fourth line has a grand total of zero points; clearly, it's not working.
Not only is this a waste, but it is also not sustainable. Erat is clearly unhappy and it is only a matter of time before he asks for a trade, much like he did last year from Nashville. He is 32 years old and only two years removed from his best NHL season. Oates should at least give a chance to the player the team traded heralded prospect Filip Forsberg to get.
Erat is not the only fourth liner who should be getting more ice time, Wilson is also struggling to find his place on the team.
A hot topic in the offseason was whether Wilson would make the Capitals' roster. Based on his contract situation, he is not eligible to play in the AHL and the Capitals had to decide whether to keep him in the NHL or send him back to his junior team.
Oates seemed fairly adamant that he stay.
"We need what he brings," said Oates who then went to on to compare him to Jerome Iginla. Wilson, however, averages the second lowest amount of ice time of anyone on the team, higher only than Latta. Evidently, the Capitals didn't need him that much.
Whether Wilson would get enough playing time in the NHL was one of the key questions the team had to consider when deciding his future. While Wilson has clearly outgrown the OHL in both size and skill, how much would it benefit him to come to Washington and struggle for playing time? It seems hard to believe that Wilson is getting better with an average of 6:41 of ice time per game.
Yes, moving Wilson up in the lineup would mean pushing someone down, most likely Ward, but those should have been the consequences the team considered before ultimately deciding to keep Wilson. If the Capitals are not willing to give him the minutes he needs to develop they might as well send him back to the OHL. Yes, the team risks stunting his development by sending him to a league he has clearly surpassed, but Oates right now seems unwilling to give him the time he needs to get better. While Wilson has demonstrated he is ready for his first year in the NHL, sitting on the bench could be just as bad for his development.
Grabovski had an impressive debut with the Capitals, recording a hat trick and an assist in his very first game with the team. In the four games since, he has only one assist. The reason for this is who he is playing with on the second line.
Laich and Brouwer are both great players, but this is not a combination capable of producing at the rate the Capitals need from their second line.
His hat trick notwithstanding, Grabovski was brought in to be more of a setup man for the second line much the same way Backstrom is for the first. Ask yourself this, who is Grabovski supposed to be setting up? Most people would point to Brouwer citing his stellar 2013 season, but that is ignoring the type of player Brouwer has been through his career.
Yes, Brower had a tremendous season last year and was second on the team in scoring, but one season does not make him a goal scorer. Let's not forget, Chris Clark scored 30 goals in 2006-07. No one would think to label him a goal scorer or base their second line's production entirely on his ability to get the puck in the net.
Let's be clear, both Laich and Brouwer are capable of scoring, but not at the rate the Capitals need from their second line. Laich's strength is in producing ugly goals. He will crash the net, agitate defensemen, and gain possession through physical play. He is a fairly reliable 20 goal scorer when healthy, but thrives on the 'ugly' goals and not on creating plays.
In his career, Brouwer has never scored more than 20 goals in a season. He had 19 last season and clearly would have surpassed that mark in a full 82 game slate, but he would not have produced at the same rate all season; his production would have tapered off at some point. From what we have seen from Brouwer through his carer, last season was more the exception, not the norm.
Through five games, Grabovski has five points, Laich and Brouwer both have zero. What more evidence do you need?
Many were critical of Oates' personnel decisions last season as the Capitals limped to a 2-8-1 start. He stuck to his guns, however, and the team responded by winning the division. This season's problems are not going to be solved by simply allowing things to play out. Changes need to be made.
JJ Regan is currently a freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic and is earning a master's degree in journalism at American University. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Hockey
- Washington Capitals
- Troy Brouwer
- Brooks Laich
- Adam Oates
- Martin Erat
- Mikhail Grabovski