A closer look at the stats shows that two players on the top line are producing and one may be just along for the ride.
In a line of Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Ovechkin, it is not hard to pick which one is the odd man out. Johansson has plenty of skill, but he is not of the same caliber player that Backstrom and Ovechkin are. That does necessarily preclude him from playing on the top line; few teams can boast three genuine superstar forwards. It does, however, mean that Johansson must justify his spot.
There is no question that Backstrom and Ovechkin should be on the top line. Looking at the roster, it is less obvious who should be their left wing. As this line gets the most playing time, it needs to be a player with the skill to produce and a playing style that compliments his linemates .
Backstrom is a solid set-up player and Ovechkin will obviously be the main scoring threat regardless of who lines up at left wing. The best thing Oates can do to balance their line is provide another scoring threat to give Backstrom a second option and to take some of the pressure off Ovechkin.
Oates strongly prefers to play players who shoot left on the left side which gives him a choice of Johansson, Jason Chimera, Martin Erat, Brooks Laich, and Aaron Volpatti. Based on their skill level, only Johansson, Erat, and Laich could seriously be considered for the top line.
Erat is a skilled, set-up player. He can produce points, but he is more of a 'quarterback', meaning he is better at setting up plays for other players. He is certainly capable of scoring, but the most goals he has scored in a single season is 23. His style is very similar to that of Backstrom and his effectiveness would be limited if they were to play on the same line.
Laich is a grinder. He is most effective in front of the net, screening the goalie and getting 'garbage' goals off of rebounds and turnovers. Like Erat he is also capable of scoring, but he is not enough of a scoring threat to draw defenders away from Ovechkin. He is there to finish plays, not create them. His physicality and aggressiveness can be an asset, but he lacks the speed and offensive playmaking abilities needed to fully compliment Backstrom and Ovechkin.
That leaves Johansson. He is a very skilled, very fast player. His skill provides another threat for Backstrom to utilize and his speed forces opposing defenses to account for him at all times. He seems to fit everything Oates would look for in a top line winger, but he has completely failed to become the threat the Capitals need him to be.
Through 12 games, Johansson is where he should be in terms of points, tied for third on the team behind only Ovechkin and Backstrom, but how much of that is being carried by Ovechkin? Johansson has 10 assists and zero goals so far this season. Even more troubling is the fact that he only has 12 shots through 12 games. While one can understand why a player would want to defer to Backstrom and Ovechkin, Johansson has done it to the point of negating his own offensive value. The fact that he is third on the team in points is nice, but only 12 shots and zero goals is not good enough.
Johansson is just not effectively using his skillset and has yet to break the 20-goal mark in a season. So while he looks to be the best choice for the top line, his submissiveness is preventing him from producing at the rate he is capable of.
The problem is that there really is really no one on the roster to replace him with. Perhaps Erat could adjust his game, but as of now the only person on the roster who fits on that top line is Johansson.
Don't expect general manager George McPhee to bring in any new faces to fix this either. The Capitals are right up against the salary cap and so long as the number four defensemen remains a positions of need, that will remain a priority over replacing an under-performing winger. The team can live with his production, just not thrive on it. Unless a deal falls into McPhee's lap, the Capitals are likely to stand pat.
The best solution would be for Johansson to finally start playing up to his potential. Until then, Ovechkin will remain the only real scoring threat on the top line. He may be scoring at a great rate now, but it will not take opposing defenses long to figure out they do not have to account for the speedy left winger who never shoots.
JJ Regan is a freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic and is currently earning a master's in journalism at American University. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy
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