When Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been separated as linemates in the past, it always felt temporary, a decade-long marriage needing the occasional break. The top center and superstar winger have played together for the majority of their careers, helping make the Washington Capitals one of the more successful franchises in the NHL during that time.
This season may feature a more permanent divorce. The Capitals have a .500 record through 22 games, and Coach Barry Trotz has avoided starting a game with Ovechkin and Backstrom on a line together, even when the team has been in the middle of losing stretches. Washington has lost three of its past four games as the even-strength production from its stars has slumped. But in Tuesday’s practice, the forward combinations were the same as those used during Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames.
Trotz was asked why he has been hesitant to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom so far this season. He said he hasn’t been, pointing to the two skating some shifts together in Colorado last week during a loss to the Avalanche. Primarily the top line for the past two seasons, the trio of Ovechkin, Backstrom and T.J. Oshie has been on the ice together only for less than 15 minutes at five-on-five this season, according to NHL statistical site Corsica.
Why hasn’t Trotz started a game with Ovechkin and Backstrom on a line together?
“Don’t feel like it,” he said with a shrug.
Trotz’s patience with the current configuration of the top two lines — Ovechkin has been beside center Evgeny Kuznetsov and right winger Devante Smith-Pelly, while Backstrom has centered Oshie and Chandler Stephenson — is especially odd considering the group’s collective struggles. Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Smith-Pelly haven’t scored an even-strength point in the past six games.
“Just not enough possession time,” Trotz said. “A good example of it is when there’s a chance, right now they’re just, for the most part, a rush line right now. Need a little more forecheck out of them.”
Meanwhile, Backstrom has just four assists and no goals in the past 15 games, and two of those assists have been on the power play. Backstrom’s average of 0.71 points per game has him on pace for the worst season of his career.
“Against Minnesota [on Saturday], he could’ve had a hat trick, and they’re not going in easy for him,” Trotz said. “I think you get more concerned when you’re not getting any chances. … Would I like more? Yeah, absolutely.”
“I don’t think anyone here is worried about Nick staying off the score sheet for too much longer,” Oshie said.
Oshie has been more productive, but his even strength production in the past 17 games is one goal and four assists. As Washington has lost three of its past four games, Oshie has been the only top-six forward to score at five-on-five. Oshie said he wouldn’t object to a line with him, Ovechkin and Backstrom making a comeback.
“I think we know that we can have success playing us three together,” Oshie said. “So, yeah, whatever the lines are is fine with me.”
It’s possible that with less depth this season, Trotz would rather not put his three top scorers on one line and weaken the Kuznetsov line. There could be concern that Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie are lacking in terms of speed when used together, which would explain why the smooth-skating Stephenson is on a line with Oshie and Backstrom. Backstrom typically draws the responsibility of going head-to-head with the opposition’s top trio, and he gets significantly more defensive zone starts than Kuznetsov, so perhaps Trotz trusts Oshie and Stephenson more defensively. Trotz hasn’t provided a clear explanation for why the two biggest stars remain separated despite their respective struggles apart this year.
“Just not ready for it,” Trotz said when he was asked two weeks ago.
The Capitals play seven of their next eight games at home, and every game is against a team that’s either in playoff position or made the playoffs last season. More than a quarter of the way into the season, it’s a critical stretch in which Washington could separate itself in the jam-packed standings, for better or worse.
“It’s usually this time of year you need to make a push,” Backstrom said Monday night. “We’ve got to make a push. It’s as simple as that.”
Said Trotz: “We do need production from our top guys. As I said to the group today, if you’re a goal scorer, I don’t just need your goal-scoring, I need the whole game. I need the whole thing. If you’re a playmaker, I need the whole thing. We need the goals, we need the physicality, we need the total game. We can’t have half your game. We’ve got to just pull it together.”
More on the Capitals and the NHL: