Twenty-two games into this season there continues to be one glaring absence at even strength for the Capitals on most nights: the second line.
That unit featuring Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich and a rotating cast of third players hasn’t been able to accomplish anything offensively at even strength. The two veteran wingers have combined for just five even-strength goals this year and are far from helping balance Washington’s attack.
“That’s a loaded question,” Brouwer said with a grimace when he was asked what’s not working. “Not good enough, let’s put it that way. We’ve had a long enough time to be comfortable with each other, that’s not the problem. We’re just not creating anything.”
Whether working with Mikhail Grabovski, Marcus Johansson or currently, Martin Erat, the Capitals’ second-line shifts have become a quest simply to get out of the defensive zone. Their play in their own end isn’t the problem so much as a general inability to move the puck up ice efficiently and to maintain offensive possession.
Only one of Brouwer’s five goals has come at even strength and he is carrying a minus-3 rating. Laich has three goals at even strength but is a team-worst minus-10. Grabovski, who played the first seven games on the second line, has the unit’s only other even-strength goal.
“It’s a little bit of a dual role where we have to be able to shut down the other team’s top line while trying to create some offense for ourselves,” Brouwer said. “Brooksie is real good down low in our D-zone. I feel like we’re not giving them a whole lot and me and Marty need to be better on the walls, getting pucks out, not slowing us down, making it so we have speed through the neutral zone because I think that’s where we’re getting a little bit stuck.”
Presented with the same question as Brouwer, Coach Adam Oates rattled off every scenario he could think of. Sometimes they make a mistake, sometimes they miss on a good chance, sometimes they let the mistakes and misses build into frustration. Oates met with Laich following Thursday’s practice to talk about the line’s struggles.
“I said, ‘One thing you guys are all doing is you’re overanalyzing.’ The game is hard to score,” Oates said. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot and we’re also not making great decisions all the time. … They’re three good players, three good players have got to work a little harder and smarter too.”
Oates said he’s thought about breaking up Brouwer and Laich as a pairing, but it’s likely not going to happen any time soon. He likes to keep two forwards from a line together at even strength and on the penalty kill to help with chemistry and minimize how special teams upsets ice-time distribution.
Also, splitting Brouwer and Laich would require changing the third line, which has been Washington’s most consistent combination at even strength. Oates isn’t keen on dismantling that unit to stabilize another right now.
“We’re winning more than we’re losing, we’re doing good things so I don’t see it happening right now. Then you’re breaking up Chimmer and Wardo to do it. That doesn’t make sense to me right now,” Oates said. “Don’t get me wrong. It is something we think about and talk about every day. I thought about it half way through” the loss to the Penguins.