Jay Beagle knew he had it good last season, playing with the same two linemates as the trio became the Capitals’ most consistent. Beagle also knew most fourth lines don’t have that luxury, so when he became the center of a lineup shuffle this season, he wasn’t frustrated.
“We’ve been pretty lucky the last couple years to have that consistency,” Beagle said. “I don’t think that it happens much on any team. This is not something I’m not familiar with, so it’s a fun new challenge.”
Washington went from boasting one of the best and most stable fourth lines in the league to one that’s still in flux. The only constant part has been Beagle at center; seven different wingers have rotated around him through 26 games. As a result, the Capitals’ fourth line has scored just four goals at five-on-five, and after Beagle had a career year playing almost exclusively with Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson last season, his personal production has dropped off.
Beagle scored 13 goals and 17 assists, career marks for him in both categories, in 81 games last season. Through 26 games, he has three goals — two were on an empty net — and four assists.
“Playing with Willy and Winnik, it was easy,” Beagle said. “We just jumped in and we kind of knew our role and we knew kind of how much ice [time] we were going to get every night. So, that made it easy to play the game, which also then usually means producing points when the game is easier and flowing better.
“But I’ve loved the guys I’ve played with this year, and they’re unbelievable players. It’s just on each other and on me as a centerman that whoever is coming in on my line, that I’m playing my best and I have that chemistry with them through practice and through other games that we’ve played, so that when they jump in, they feel the most comfortable that they can feel on the ice.”
The Capitals chose not to re-sign Winnik after he scored a career-high 12 goals; Winnik joined the Minnesota Wild on a professional tryout and then signed for roughly the league minimum. Wilson was due a promotion into the top-nine forward corps, and for the past four games, he’s been on a top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.
That meant two new linemates for Beagle this season, and he’s rarely had the same two linemates for more than a handful of games as Coach Barry Trotz has tried to trigger more production from the bottom-six forwards. He’s occasionally gotten that from the third line, where center Lars Eller has four even-strength goals on his own, but the fourth trio — and Beagle in particular — has struggled, in large part because it’s been a revolving door. That might be remedied soon now that the roster is getting healthier and the Capitals could be settling into a more permanent lineup for the rest of the season.
“I haven’t done Beags a lot of justice because I think he’s on his 18th different winger right now,” Trotz said.
“The point production, I think that comes,” Beagle said. “I’ve never been too worried about points. I do take pride in trying to chip in. When our line can score, it’s going to really take pressure off the top-six [forwards], and that’s something that’s huge. And if you want to win a [Stanley] Cup that’s huge — we’ve seen that over the past four or five years. That’s something I’ve tried to develop because of that, seeing teams win that have four strong lines.
“That’s what I’m trying to do again this year, grow our line into a strong, reliable line. If that means chipping in, it’s going to come. It’s not something that I’m too worried about just because we need to continue to work on it and build chemistry and build our game as a fourth line. You do the right things and eventually you get rewarded.”
Trotz admitted that he perhaps expected more out of his fourth line. “I would say that we’ve had more inconsistencies in that part of our lineup than I’m used to,” Trotz said. He called it a “work-in-progress,” but Trotz recently spoke to Beagle about staying true to his “hound dog player” identity — excuse the obvious yet inadvertent pun — and that centers on how Beagle is used away from his regular linemates.
Trotz often deploys Beagle with other forward trios in the defensive zone with the express purpose of having him win the faceoff — Beagle is Washington’s only centerman who’s a right-handed draw — and then go back to the bench for a line change once the Capitals get possession of the puck. Beagle said he’ll often spend some time studying faceoff footage of the opposing team’s centers before a game to learn some of their tendencies. He’s also Washington’s top penalty-killing forward.
Though the Capitals may not count on the fourth line to score every game, they do need more consistent production than what they’ve gotten to this point. That’s something Beagle also expects of himself, even with chemistry tougher to come by.
“I love a new challenge,” Beagle said. “I love when something happens where guys get moved up and now you’re forced to get out of your comfort zone again because you’ve been in that comfort zone for a while and playing with the same guys. And so, the new challenge is exciting. I knew that this summer going into it.”
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