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First-line role latest for Jay Beagle, the Capitals’ ‘utility infielder’

(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Whichever skater gets ordered into the middle of the Washington Capitals post-practice stretching circle varies by day and circumstance, at times hinging on superstition, hometowns or sheer randomness, and over the past several days, forward Jay Beagle has occupied the bull’s-eye.

He has become a good-luck charm for Coach Barry Trotz in this way, a personal potion ready to be served if something ails a certain line. Wednesday night, when Trotz moved forward Andre Burakovsky from the top line and wanted to add “more balance” beside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, he summoned the player for whom descriptive dog puns – dogged, hunted, hounded, works his tail off – are inextricably linked and unavoidable.

“The one thing you know with Beags is what you’re getting every night,” Trotz said. “There’s a comfort for a coach and for teammates and all that. He’s becoming a little bit of a play-in-every-situation, plug-in-every-hole, sort of that utility infielder.”

Beagle justified Trotz’s faith against the Penguins, tabling Ovechkin’s early goal on the line’s second shift, and skated there again at Thursday’s practice, before the team left for Montreal. The top line cycled more than normal, working to Beagle’s strength and speed. His ideal career, Beagle has said, would be grinding as a third-line center and killing penalties. He tried to do the same, but in the penthouse.

“That’s my game, is get down there, retrieve the puck on the forecheck, try to start a cycle and grind them out and open things up from there,” he said. “That’s just one of my strengths. That’s what I like to play to.

“It doesn’t change. I’m here to help my team win hockey games. Wherever coach puts me, wherever the team needs me on that given night, I’m going to go out there and do my absolute best to get the job done. I don’t think … it’s not something that you really can change your game, because if you start changing your game to try to adapt to the line you’re on, I think that’s why you get in trouble.”

Before the season began, Beagle and Trotz had several conversations about deploying him in a utility role, and the randomness of his spots have bore that out. Scratched for five straight games to open the season, he then became the second-line right winger for one night, the third-line right-winger for three, the fourth-line left-winger for two and the fourth-line right-winger for three.

Since then, he’s bounced around third- and fourth-line spots, with the occasional promotion to beside Ovechkin, a move that Adam Oates tried last season and often inspires a certain type of responses from fans. (Sample from last game: “Noooooo,” “Bleh,” Beagle still on 1st line?? C’mon Ovy & Backs need someone able to end plays” and “Welp. I’ve seen about enough Trotz for the season.”)

The disconnect, it seems, rests in the possession metrics, which do not work in Beagle’s favor. His even-strength Corsi-for, a measure of total on-ice shot differential, ranks second-worst among all Capitals, better than only Jason Chimera. In almost 90 even-strength minutes with Ovechkin, they combine for a 42.6 percent Corsi-for; without Beagle, Ovechkin’s rate rockets up 13 percentage points, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com. Backstrom enjoys a similar without-you jump too, moving from 43.7 percent with Beagle to 55.1 percent without him.

But there’s also a high level of respect for Beagle in the locker room and, among the coaching staff, an undeniable confidence in deploying him under varying circumstances, whether on defensive zone draws or on the top line, and in big games too. Beagle’s two most recent starts on the top line have come in the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day and in a back-to-back against Washington’s chief rivals, with the team desperate after four straight losses. In a contract year, his 13 points and seven goals have already set career-highs.

“Well, he’s a responsible player too,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I think he’s pretty well-rounded. He’s a fourth-line center, D-zone draw, penalty kills in the game, and he brings energy to that top line, defensive responsibility, whatever you want. I think he’s got a lot of tools.”

The bigger adjustment, Beagle said, was switching from centering the fourth line, where he had spent 10 straight games, to playing right wing, and not changing styles.

“Especially for me, I’ve always had to stick to what my strengths are,” he said. “You adapt a little bit, obviously playing with Ovi and Backie, but it’s also nice to score the second shift. That’s a big confidence-booster too. It’s fun playing with them. They play with a lot of energy and they want the puck all the time. They want to be in the offensive zone and get chances and that’s a fun way to play.”

And as for the dog puns? Beagle had some thoughts too.

“I don’t mind the dog puns,” he said. “As long as it’s not an overuse of the dog puns. If you see me hunting the puck, I’m hunting the puck, or I’m dogging the puck.”

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