Capitals changing up the lines for Ovechkin’s return

Martin Erat (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Martin Erat (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

With Alex Ovechkin’s return to the lineup expected Tuesday night, a little corresponding shuffling of Adam Oates’s lines to make room was inevitable.

But with the daily line-by-line roll call at the beginning of Monday morning’s practice, fans and reporters discovered Oates had done a lot more than a little shuffling.

For Monday’s practice — and Oates made no commitments to these lines moving forward — Brooks Laich moved up to left wing on the top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. As a result, Martin Erat, who’d been buried on the fourth line for much of the season prior to Ovechkin’s injury, dropped from left wing on the first line to left wing on the fourth. Eric Fehr, who had the unenviable task of filling in at right wing for Ovechkin over the weekend, dropped back to center the second line, flanked by Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer. The increasingly productive and therefore increasingly immutable third line of Jason Chimera, Mikhail Grabovski, and Joel Ward remained intact.

(For visual learners:)

Laich — Backstrom — Ovechkin

Johansson — Fehr — Brouwer

Chimera — Grabovski — Ward

Erat — Latta/Beagle — Wilson

The changes raised several questions, most notably: “how can one justify dropping Erat back to the fourth line after he tallied two assists and meshed as well with Backstrom as any left wing has this season?”

Erat has proven he’s a 20-goal a year forward when he’s healthy, is a career top-six guy for which the Capitals parted ways with top prospect Filip Forsberg, and is a responsible player who will dig pucks off the boards and get back on defense.

“He’s a guy that depending on who you play him with, he’s got a great skill set, he complicates guys,” Oates said. “[Moving him up to the first line] allowed [Johansson] to go to center on the other line, and I think he’s a very similar player to Jojo. He jumped in and kind of did the same thing [with Backstrom].”

Erat, who expressed confusion and frustration with his fourth-line minutes earlier in the season, seemed unperturbed by the move after practice, saying he “thinks nothing at all,” of the shift, that “it’s all good” and explaining that he spoke to Oates about the move before practice.

“I told him it’s all good, you know? It is how it is, I’m just working hard,” Erat said. “We’ll see how the lines are going to be tomorrow.”

And therein lies the question: Were Monday’s lines a portent of things to come against the Islanders, or just a one-time move by Oates?

Oates’s answer to that very question, combined with Erat’s marked lack of concern about the move, seemed to suggest the latter:

“Not necessarily, no [those won't be the lines tomorrow]. A couple guys are banged up so I wasn’t sure if everybody can get through practice, so I kind of switched things up just to change some guys up,” he said. “To confuse you guys [the Capitals' beat reporters]. I’m tired of you guys.”

He added later, “I did talk to [Erat] about something. He was a little banged up from the other night, so I didn’t put him (on the first line) today just in case he was a little bit too banged up and couldn’t get through practice.”

That Erat, not Laich, would flank Backstrom makes sense, given that Laich has yet to find his stride through 14 games that have seen him score two goals and contribute two assists in top-six ice time.

If Erat is the third of the top-line trio Tuesday, Laich may be a little disappointed, as he seemed to have some pretty big plans for playing with the team’s top two.

“I saw [Ovechkin] this morning and I saw the lines and I said to him, ‘Ovi, whenever you get the puck, just think: give it to me,’” Laich said, “and he just started laughing. I was obviously joking, I was just making fun of him. But I’m excited to play with those guys, they’ve both been doing good things offensively and for myself, hopefully this can be a little boost. I’ll be excited if it stays that way tomorrow.”

In all likelihood, it won’t, though Oates has shown a willingness to tinker early in a season that’s seen his Capitals play inconsistently in five-on-five. If Erat remains, Laich’s landing spot becomes the next question. Oates lauded Fehr’s versatility after practice Monday, and said he doesn’t think Marcus Johansson is necessarily a natural center.

All that clarifies little about which combination of Laich, Fehr, Johansson and Brouwer will feature on his second line Tuesday, though the odd man out will likely find his way to the fourth line given the obvious chemistry of Chimera, Grabovski, and Ward on the third.

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