With Ovechkin and Backstrom each stringing together solid seasons, producing a 54.4 percent shot-attempt rate and a 52.9 percent goals-for rate at even strength, the third member became mostly a footnote. Coach Barry Trotz parachuted certain players into the penthouse for multi-game stretches and most enjoyed success playing beside the Capitals’ most dynamic offensive threats. According to puckalytics.com, of the eight skaters who logged at least 10 even-strength minutes with Ovechkin and Backstrom this season, only Jay Beagle posted a shot-attempt rate lower than 55 percent.
The unpredictability hardly affected Ovechkin and Backstrom’s production either. The former notched 28 even-strength goals and the latter recorded 30 even-strength assists, the most for both since 2009-10. But the carousel left general manager Brian MacLellan entering free agency searching for a more stable solution.
“It’s on the shopping list,” he said Monday, during his final interview of the season. “I think it’d be a priority for us if we could find a guy who could play there. I don’t know if the UFA market’s going to provide that for us. We’ll see what happens in the trade market here coming up, see if we can find that. Otherwise we’re going to have to develop a guy.”
The in-house options, MacLellan suggested, would likely come down to Andre Burakovsky or Tom Wilson, both of whom enjoyed prolonged stints on the top line this season, a water-testing expedition of sorts. The Capitals plan to keep Burakovsky at wing, despite their attempts last summer to convert him to center, and MacLellan said they hoped to “incorporate him into our top six” next season.
“I’ve discussed it with Barry a few times,” MacLellan said. “I think there’s a natural center there who hasn’t been developed, but I think you can play him anywhere, left wing, center or right wing.”
The ideal trajectory for Wilson, meanwhile, seemed more flexible. MacLellan first said he wanted to “bump him up” to more ice time than the 10 minutes 56 seconds he averaged this season, but later hedged and said “we need to, maybe not next year but the year after, turn him into a top-six forward.” On breakdown day last week, Wilson said his goal was to solidify the top-line right wing spot.
“I think we need some skill development there,” MacLellan said. “I don’t like having him on the fourth line for a whole year. I don’t think he touched the puck enough. He needs to make more plays. He’s already a big part of our identity. We just need to maximize him as a player, and I think he has the potential to do that.”
If the Capitals decide against the cost-effective, in-house route – Wilson and Burakovsky’s combined annual cap hit is roughly $1.82 million – then MacLellan said they would explore both the trade market and free agency. (Here is the list of pending unrestricted forwards. It’s not exactly brimming with cost-effective options.)
“It is a priority,” MacLellan said. “You don’t like to see revolving players go through that spot all year. You’d like to have more stability where a guy’s there permanently or almost permanently. You’re always changing lines, but we’d like to have a guy play there, yes.”