After rotating through four systems and three coaches in the previous three seasons, the Washington Capitals finally started a year on what seemed to be solid ground. In the second year under Coach Adam Oates, with no new system to learn and with a full training camp, they were expected to take the next step forward.
Instead, the Capitals lost five of their first seven games and showed a penchant for problems that remained all season, from allowing quick goals to shoddy play in their own end and a lack of steady offensive production at even strength. Nowhere was that more apparent than on the top two lines, considering that those units are expected to provide scoring. While there was stability in terms of which players received roles and responsibilities in the top half of the lineup, that didn’t equate to constant performance.
Through the first 41 games of the year, of those who played predominantly on the first or second line — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich – Ovechkin had more even strength goals (19) than the other four combined (18).
What follows is a look at how the top six forwards, or players who spent a significant amount of time there, fared. Bottom six forwards and goaltending will follow in the next few days and if you’ve missed any of the previous breakdowns check them out here: Unrestricted free agents, Defensemen.
Note: All salary cap figures are from Capgeek.com and the Capitals denied requests to speak to all of the assistant coaches, including Blaine Forsythe who worked with the power play the last two seasons.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $9,538,462 | Age: 28
2013-14 regular season stats: 78GP, 51G, 28A, -35
In his second season as a right wing, Ovechkin was back atop the league’s scoring charts, finishing first in goals and eighth in points. He accounted for 22.7 percent of the Capitals’ overall goals, 16.8 percent of the team’s even strength tallies (not including empty net goals) and posted 10 game-winners, including three in overtime. There were games – his four-goal outburst against Tampa Bay on Dec. 10 comes to mind – in which the only think separating Washington from a loss was Ovechkin’s offensive production.
But like the Capitals as a whole, his possession numbers (47.9 percent Fenwick-for at even strength) and his play in his own end left plenty to be desired. As has been well documented, he finished with the third worst plus-minus rating in the league at minus-35. While it’s a flawed statistic, the volume of goals for which Ovechkin was on the ice at even strength still speaks to overarching problems for the team and the top unit.
This year more than others, many opponents decided to stop trying to counteract Ovechkin with a checking line and instead put their own offensive firepower out against Washington’s offensive dynamo. That created problems that were compounded by the team’s defensive overall shortcomings, as Ovechkin and his line have never been designed to handle prolonged stretches playing in their own zone working to get the puck back.
This year also featured disappointment on an international scale for the star winger, who was the face of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia but scored only one goal before he and his countrymen were knocked out in the quarterfinals by Finland. Ovechkin’s point production did decline after the Olympics – he went from a 1.15 points per game pace to .78 – and he went the entire month of March without a single point at even strength, but perhaps the larger problem was the Capitals’ over-reliance on him (and the power play).
2014-15 salary cap hit: $6.7 million| Age: 26
2013-14 regular season stats: 82GP, 18G, 61A, -20
While the franchise centerman has historically been coated in Teflon when it comes to criticism of the Capitals, Backstrom, like his goal-scoring counterpart, had respectable offensive numbers alongside perplexing defensive indicators at even strength. His minus-20 rating was third worst on the team, behind only Ovechkin and Johansson. His Corsi-for (shot attempts) and Fenwick-for (non-blocked shot attempts) were the lowest marks in three seasons and in an odd turn of events he also earned a career high in penalty minutes (56).
While they were split up occasionally, Backstrom played 68.3 percent of the time with Ovechkin this year and neither was able to help mitigate the team’s defensive woes. He has always been a pass-first player but this year, and moving forward, the Capitals need Backstrom to take greater advantage of shooting opportunities when they present themselves.
He clocked in with a 9.2 shooting percentage this year, which isn’t enough to have opposing teams consider him a consistent threat. As the season progressed, that resulted in more open space for Backstrom, but it wasn’t until late in the season that he took advantage of it.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $2 million | Age: 23
2013-14 regular season stats: 80GP, 8G, 36A, -21
There were times early this season when Johansson started to demonstrate he could be more than simply a willing sidekick to Ovechkin and Backstrom. He was more assertive and deliberate with his movements in passing to try and engineer scoring chances for his teammates, and even began to handle physical contact well.
Named to the Swedish Olympic roster as an injury replacement, he took on a greater role in Sochi when more players were sidelined and he came away with a silver medal. But now through four full NHL seasons, has Johansson grown enough as a player?
He’s always been the complementary type, floating unnoticed in the background regardless what line he plays on. But at some point the Capitals want and need more from the 2009 first-round pick. His 44 points are two shy of his career high set in 2010-11, but he was one of many top-six forwards guilty of not enough consistency at even strength. He recorded two even strength goals this year, the first on Nov. 7 against Minnesota the second March 2 against Philadelphia.
Long-term the questions regarding Johansson are the same as they’ve been for years now. Should he play more center or wing? The answer seems to vary depending on the coach or day of the week. But a more pressing one: Should he remain a regular presence in the top six when his contributions haven’t been consistent enough to warrant that type of role?
2014-15 salary cap hit: $3,666,667 | Age: 28
2013-14 regular season stats: 82GP, 25G, 18A, -6
Finished second on the team in goals and posted a career high, but only after a late-season surge of 11 goals and five assists in the 23 games after the Olympic break. Even when he wasn’t on the scoresheet regularly, Brouwer was one of the Capitals’ most multi-purpose forwards. He was the only forward and one of just two players overall – John Carlson was the other — to average more than three minutes (3:25) on the power play per game while simultaneously averaging more than two minutes (2:06) of shorthanded time per contest.
After a career-best shooting percentage (17.1) in last year’s lockout-shortened campaign, he settled at a 15.5 this season, which is more realistic for the long term. If there’s one thing the Capitals should have learned from the first half of the season, though, it’s that pairing Brouwer with someone with a similar skillset (read: Brooks Laich) isn’t going to yield the results one expects of a second line. Five-on-five, when Brouwer and Laich were on the ice together, the Capitals saw just 46.8 percent of shot attempts in their favor.
He’s a versatile cog in all aspects of the Capitals’ game under Oates and rallied in the second half of the season to finish with strong offensive numbers. But Washington has more depth at right wing than any other position and if the team chooses to lighten that backlog this summer or retool the roster, it could play a role in his future.
2014-15 salary cap hit: UFA | Age: 30
2013-14 regular season stats: 58GP, 13G, 22A, +6
After spending the first month on the third line, learning the way Oates wanted him to play, Grabovski took over the second line center spot he was signed to fill and over the course of the season he was the most effective player at driving possession. Grabovski seemed to have almost instant chemistry with whoever he played with. He worked well with the steady duo of Jason Chimera and Joel Ward; he brought life to the second line and helped push that long-struggling unit out of its own end.
As discussed earlier this week, though, the big question is whether Grabovski will return to Washington and that depends on who will serve as general manager and coach moving forward. No matter who is in those roles, though, as things stand now, the Capitals could use another few years with a veteran, experienced center in the mix. Even if Evgeny Kuznetsov is destined to hold that spot in the future, is he ready to make that jump after just 17 games?
2014-15 salary cap hit: $4.5 | Age: 30
2013-14 regular season stats: 51GP, 8G, 7A, -7
For a second straight season, Laich was severely limited by the nagging groin injury that he originally suffered in the fall of 2012 while playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout. He appeared in 51 games, but considered himself healthy for less than half of those.
“I was in survival mode. The first 20 games, I felt okay, but I wasn’t sure coming off the procedure from last year and then after that it was such a nose-dive where I was just trying to survive that day and I’ll deal with trying to practice tomorrow or trying to play tomorrow,” Laich explained. “Honestly, from mid-November on it was a day-by-day kind of year for me. It’s impossible to get the work in at practice that you need, get the workouts in off the ice that you need, it’s impossible to prepare and to excel at the game when you’re just trying to survive like that.”
That explains much of Laich’s ineffectiveness this year; he lacked the strength or speed to remain consistently involved in a play. He underwent his second surgery in less than a year on March 17 to try to correct the groin problem again and began skating before the regular season ended on April 13. But for as optimistic as Laich has been about his recovery process, that positive refrain has become familiar over these last two seasons.
There’s no way to predict when Laich will be on the ice consistently, until he is taking part in games and practices with no lingering problems. Even when or if that occurs, though, there’s no way to tell if he will be the same player he was before the groin injury took hold.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $900,000 | Age: 21
2013-14 regular season stats: 17GP, 3G, 6A, -2
After four years of anticipation, Kuznetsov arrived in the NHL and while it was only a 17-game and month-long sample the first impression was an encouraging one. The 2010 first-round pick flashed his playmaking skills, such as his three-assist game, and eased concerns about how he would adapt to the physicality and north-south style game of the NHL.
He may only be 21 but there was a workman-like quality about Kuznetsov. He wants to do well here, to show he can excel in the best league in the world. By throwing him into the playoff race this year, the Capitals hoped to give Kuznetsov a head start on the adjustment period and with any luck that will pay off next season.
Assuming Kuznetsov continues to make a steady progression, where would you like to see him play next season? Top line left wing? Second line center? Or perhaps continue easing him into that larger role with more time elsewhere in the lineup?