During the preseason, Brooks Laich and Mikhail Grabovski would sit in their stalls after practice at the Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington and diagram plays with their fingers using a Gatorade bottle to represent the net.
The pantomime continues even now in the regular season as they discuss certain passes, reactions and reads along with winger Troy Brouwer, searching for a jump start. Through the first three games of the regular season, the second line of Laich, Grabovski and Brouwer has yet to create any offensive production as a unit.
Grabovski is the lone member of the line with points (3 goals, 2 assists), but two of his goals came on the power play and his only even-strength tally came without either of his linemates on the ice.
“I think it’s still a work in progress. We’ve had some chances, we’ve had spurts at times, but it hasn’t been a consistent, every-shift threat yet which is something that I think we can get to,” Laich said. “All three of us expect to produce. We don’t hope to, we expect to, and when it’s not going, we really want to work on it, try to find a way to figure it out and get it done.”
The slow start isn’t entirely unexpected, given that the trio has only played four games, including one preseason contest, together as a group. Grabovski arrived at training camp a week late after being delayed by visa issues and Laich was limited by a left hip flexor injury throughout the preseason as well. Those hangups prevented them from working regularly as a group until the regular season began on Oct. 1.
But Washington as a whole is searching for improvement at even strength, where it has been outscored 10-3, including an empty-net tally, and the absence of offense from the second line can’t be ignored.
“The three of us are responsible defensively, and it works out from there. As long as we’re not giving up chances against, I think the chances for will come,” Brouwer said. “I know Oatsey has a lot of faith in our line and we demand a lot out of ourselves, but we need to start scoring.”
When it comes to the second line, Coach Adam Oates isn’t overly concerned about the trio.
“Little stuck at times. It happens, and I’m really not worried about it at all,” Oates said. “I know what the guys can do; you’ve seen what they can do. We have a lot of guys that need to get a couple goals and relax. We need to keep in our rhythm.”
Part of the reason Oates isn’t about to hit reshuffle for the second line is because there are encouraging signs. He went so far as to dub them the best unit in Dallas, where they combined for seven shots on goal and had a few quality scoring chances, including one by Brouwer 10 feet out in the slot that went wide.
“We control, we move with the puck, we can go forward very quick,” Grabovski said. “We just need to fix little things, make us better — just control the puck more and help each other more.”
While they’re not putting points up yet, the second line also isn’t getting trapped in its own zone much either. Where they’re getting hung up is the neutral zone or in maintaining a cycle game once they cross the offensive blueline. The details that will help them maintain better puck possession and ensure proper support are the ones the players are confident will develop with time, the same ones they focus on after practice.
“We’re playing well, but it’s still going to take some time to get familiar with each other and know what the other guys’ tendencies are,” Brouwer said. “Like, if there’s a loose puck, we know to throw it behind the net and the guy’s going to be supporting us down the wall. Those are the things that require more puck possession and more touches, those will come.”