“Which was a pretty good feeling for me,” Trotz said later, because of what happened next. Though Penguins defenseman Kris Letang barreled with the puck into the Capitals’ zone and flung a backhander that struck the post, the net dislodged from its moorings, chests puffed out and, less than one minute into Washington’s eventual 3-1 victory, the agitation had begun.
But on the next shift, Burakovsky appeared on the top line, working where he had while recording the first multi-goal game of his career in Anaheim. And so spun the right wing carousel, much as it has throughout Trotz’s brief tenure in Washington, with the only current resolution being to plug pieces based on situation.
“Sometimes you lock in the one guy, but we’ve talked about trying to find that guy,” Trotz said. “It’s actually worked out probably to a benefit. If you want maybe a little more of a skilled line, you put Burakovsky there, which I’ve done, or Marcus [Johansson]. If you want maybe a little heavier line, you put Willie there.
“I think it’s worked out fine. I don’t think it’s essential. I think it’s something we’re trying to build. If we don’t have the right guy, then developing one of those two young guys would be the way to go.”
With Johansson recently returning to his usual perch beside Troy Brouwer and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Trotz’s actions would indicate a preference to, at the worst, exchanging Burakovsky and Wilson up top, though he’s also used Johansson at times, as well as forward Jay Beagle in lead-protecting situations. Both 20-year-olds, though, have proved themselves capable puck-possessors when playing with the Capitals’ superstars; together, Burakovsky and Ovechkin post a 55.2 even-strength shot attempt percentage, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com; Wilson and Ovechkin are at 54.7 percent.
“All different players give different looks, I think,” Backstrom said. “That’s totally up to all the coaches to decide that. But I think it’s good that we’ve a lot of players there, in case something happens, you can play with another guy.”
Defenseman John Carlson, however, said tweaking one part to a line already dominant in scoring – Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals, Backstrom tops the league in assists and is tied for first in points – wouldn’t drastically alter the complexion of covering them.
“I don’t think it’s like football in the sense that you’re going to switch this guy and this guy on one line and everybody’s going to be looking around like, ‘Oh what are we going to do?’” Carlson said. “It’s a pretty reactive game, in terms of playing defense. You just take whatever comes to you.”
Still, Carlson, often deployed with Brooks Orpik as Washington’s shutdown defensive pair, also said that having Backstrom and Ovechkin as the anchors makes it easier to shuttle through parts, be it relative veterans such as Beagle and Johansson, or top-line newcomers such as Wilson and Burakovsky. If general manager Brian MacLellan chooses not to address this at the trade deadline, then the Capitals will enter the playoffs either looking to lock down one top-line right-winger or trying to brandish this flexibility as a weapon.
“You look at everyone that’s on that line,” Carlson said. “If a guy like Willie changes the line a little bit, gets into the forecheck and creates space, versus a more skilled guy like JoJo, Burkie…it’s all different looks. They’re such good players they can really play with anybody. Anybody can complement them. I think you’ve got to watch who’s out there, know what kind of game you have to play, make sure you’re doing whatever it is to be the best at that.”