It was far from a seamless process for the Capitals as they transitioned to a third coach and third system in just more than a year. As players grew into their roles under Coach Adam Oates, the team pulled itself out of its early-season tailspin and found the balance between defense and offense it had been looking for in recent years.
As much as this year’s rapid exit from the playoffs followed the organization’s larger pattern, Oates is the wild card. Can he draw more from the top players? Will he find new niches for role players?
General Manager George McPhee said last week he didn’t believe the roster needed much changing, but this summer offers an opportunity to make alterations that are in line with Oates’s specifications. How McPhee proceeds with unrestricted free agents Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks alone will certainly have a ripple effect throughout the forward ranks.
Below is Part I of the forward review, a look at the players who finished the year on the top two lines. Be sure to check back later today for Part II on the bottom-six forwards.
2013-14 salary cap hit: $9,538,462 | Age: 27 (Turns 28 on Sept. 17)
A switch to right wing and changes to become more involved in all three zones paid dividends as the spark and unpredictable quality of Ovechkin’s game returned in full force. The Capitals’ star winger recorded 23 goals in the final 23 games of the regular season, captured the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer (32) and reclaimed his place among the most dynamic offensive talents in the NHL. While that consistent output didn’t extend into the playoffs (1G, 1A), Ovechkin was a factor creating chances and setting the tone with physical play in the postseason.
Perhaps the most striking, and encouraging, element of his offensive production this year was that Ovechkin was scoring goals in a variety of different ways. From tip-ins to one-on-one efforts, one-timers on the power play to give-and-goes with his linemates, there was no longer the glaring predictability in Ovechkin’s game that helped opponents key in on him.
There’s no doubt relationship he built with Oates this season helped him evolve. “Right now I can tell to work with him, it was probably one of the biggest reason to my success this year,” Ovechkin said in his final interview with local reporters. The key will be continuing that process as the rest of the league tries to find new ways to limit him.
2013-14 salary cap hit: $6.7 million | Age: 25
Whether it was lingering effects of the neck injury he suffered while playing in the KHL during the lockout, the growing pains in a new system, his separation from Ovechkin or a combination of each of those factors Backstrom’s start was hardly what the Capitals have come to expect from their franchise center. It wasn’t simply a lack of production but the absence of the otherworldly passes and decisions that seemed a step ahead of everyone else on the ice.
Those traits returned as the season progressed, though, no more than when Backstrom was reunited with Ovechkin in mid-March. Of his 48 points, 27 came in the final 24 games of the regular season and the combined success of Backstrom and Ovechkin helped push the Capitals into a playoff position. But he too fizzled when the postseason arrived, recording a goal and two assists, and suddenly he went from a confident playmaker to one overthinking every move.
Backstrom has long held significant responsibility offensively, defensively and during every situation of the game. Those roles and his place as the team’s top center are unquestioned, but what will it take for him to find consistency once more? Not in regard to point totals exclusively, but in the steady all-around play the Capitals have come to rely on. Staying healthy? A full season alongside Ovechkin again?
2013-14 salary cap hit: RFA | Age: 22
Johansson was at his best late in the season after he returned from a concussion and once he was promoted to top line left wing. His speed, the trait that separates him from so many others, created space for Ovechkin and Backstrom and forced opponents to defend the line differently.
But is that where he should be? While Johansson, a natural center, can certainly play wing, he’s bounced around between the positions quite often in his first three NHL seasons to the point that it’s still tough to determine which role he’s best suited for. While the Capitals place high value on versatility, it’s hard not to wonder whether Johansson would benefit from a more clear-cut role, whether it’s on the wing or at center.
2013-14 salary cap hit: $4.5 million | Age: 31 (Turns 32 on Aug. 29)
Acquired in a deadline-day deal that clearly emphasized the present over the future as Washington sent highly-touted prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville, Erat didn’t get much opportunity to show how he’d fit with the Capitals as injuries piled up. He appeared in only 13 games for Washington this year after being knocked out of the lineup with a left knee injury in the regular season and then a dislocated left elbow in Game 4 against the Rangers.
What Erat did show in his limited time in the lineup was a strong ability to protect the puck, the defensive aptitude engrained from years with the Predators and a veteran’s instinctual ability to help create scoring chances. He’s not a pure goal-scorer, though. Whether he can contribute enough to help balance out the attack so that opponents can’t focus in on the top line as much remains to be determined.
2013-14 salary cap hit: UFA | Age: 33
One of few bright spots in the first half of the season as the Capitals struggled to find their footing, Ribeiro finished second on the team in points (49) and assists (36) and third in goals (13). The flip side of that equation, however, is that the veteran pivot was inconsistent and often a non-factor down the stretch and for much of the postseason – his overtime winner in Game 5 the exception.
Is it realistic to expect that type of point-per-game production from Ribeiro in a full season for the next several years? Probably not. And when Ribeiro’s not producing, it draws more attention to the liabilities in his game – namely faceoff struggles (44.8 percent in the regular season) and a propensity for unnecessary penalties.
While he gave the Capitals the established one-two punch down the middle that they needed in the previous three seasons, whether he fits here long term will be one of the most significant decisions McPhee must make this summer. (More on that here.)
2013-14 salary cap hit: $3,666,667 | Age: 27 (Turns 28 on Aug. 17)
Brouwer became more of a legitimate scoring threat in his second year with the Capitals, recording 19 goals — good for second best on the team and just three shy of his career high.
The uptick can be attributed to slightly different roles than the ones he had previously. Instead of being relied on exclusively to reside in the blue paint on the power play, Brouwer was stationed a few feet away in the slot, where he was a more legitimate shooting threat. The rapid puck movement often created space for him to fire a one-timer. At even strength he took on the role of the designated shooter on the second line and benefited from playing alongside both Backstrom and Ribeiro.
But Brouwer, like many others, went cold in the postseason and was part of the reason why New York was able to focus on shutting down Ovechkin and the rest of the top unit.
The challenge for Brouwer next year will be to find consistency again to help establish a balanced attack. If the Capitals don’t retain Ribeiro, though, can he do it without skating alongside an elite, established center?
2013-14 salary cap hit: $1.50 million | Age: 27 (Turns 28 on Sept. 7)
Fehr earned a return engagement with the Capitals after a successful foray to Finland during the lockout, and the leap of faith paid off. In addition to contributing occasional offense (9G, 8A) he rounded out his game, became a regular on the penalty kill and a catalyst on the forecheck.
While he didn’t record a point in the playoffs, Fehr was one of the Capitals’ most consistent and effective players in the first-round series against the Rangers. From shot-blocking to helping fuel Washington’s efforts at establishing a cycle and simple, hard-working play, Fehr was a positive presence nearly every time he was on the ice.
It’s no coincidence that Fehr’s resurgence came with the return of his health. After years of struggling with injuries and surgeries on both shoulders, Fehr was healthy for the bulk of the shortened season.
2013-14 salary cap hit: $4.5 million | Age: 29 (Turns 30 on June 23)
For the first time in his career, Laich dealt with a significant and lingering injury that sidelined him for the bulk of a season. Laich suffered a groin injury while playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout, made his season debut in mid-March but only played nine games before his condition deteriorated to the point that surgery was the only option. He underwent a minor groin procedure in early April but wasn’t able to return before the Capitals were eliminated in the first round.
“When I got injured, I thought it was a tweak, I thought it was a nagging little thing that you always get during the season. You have a sore shoulder, you have a sore knee, you have a sore hip flexor,” Laich said. “That comes on weekly. And you get used to playing through that. And myself being an incredibly stubborn guy, I just pushed through it, and I was ignorant to the fact that I had actually been injured and it wasn’t just a day-to-day thing and I kept pushing it and kept pushing it until I was completely useless.”
Getting even a glimpse of how Laich fit into Oates’s system offers encouragement for next year, though. Laich’s North-South style helps drives the relentless attack that Oates wants to create and sustain through an aggressive forecheck and cycle. Where he fits in the lineup precisely – whether at center or wing — could be determined by offseason moves.