T.J. Oshie and Coach Barry Trotz had an extended chat before the team’s practice Wednesday. The gist: Trotz told Oshie he’d be skating with first-line center Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin that day, and Oshie told him he didn’t deserve the promotion.
Since Oshie has returned to the lineup after missing six games with a concussion last month, he has insisted that he has felt like his old self again. But he and the Washington Capitals are still waiting for him to look like his old self on the ice. Though Trotz said Oshie’s reunion with Ovechkin and Backstrom was just for practice, it could be a move designed to spark the team’s slumping star right wing.
“Things aren’t really going my way right now,” Oshie said. “I’m not playing my best, but I’m working hard and doing a lot of little things good, so we’ll see. I’m sure playing with those two guys never hurts.”
In the seven games since Oshie’s return to the lineup, he has one goal and no assists. His linemates have fallen into similar dry spells; center Evgeny Kuznetsov has one goal and two assists in those seven games, and Jakub Vrana has one assist. With Oshie now skating with Ovechkin and Backstrom, Trotz moved Tom Wilson beside Kuznetsov and Vrana. Devante Smith-Pelly, who had a goal and a primary assist in two games with Ovechkin and Backstrom, is now on a third line with center Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.
“I think it’s just a little bit frustrating that me, [Vrana] and Kuzy, three pretty good players, we couldn’t figure a way to bring some offense to the team,” Oshie said. “Fortunately for us, a lot of other guys are playing really well right now. We’ll see if the lines stick and if they stay, but in my position, I almost feel a little bad for Devo [Smith-Pelly]. He played great on that line. Tom was playing really good on that line. For me, a little frustrated for them that they were in the top spot there and they got moved down after some really good play.”
Said Trotz: “To me, that’s the humbleness of him, too. For me, it’s about what he can contribute to a line. It doesn’t matter if he’s going well or not going well, in his mind or my mind. I know he can contribute, and sometimes just changing the deck a little bit or the mind-set a little bit, it falls into place.”
Earlier in the week, Trotz referenced a play in the third period of Washington’s recent game against Boston: Right after the Capitals killed off an Oshie high-sticking infraction, Oshie had a turnover in front of Washington’s net that led to a go-ahead goal by the Bruins. The Capitals still went on to win that game in a shootout.
“I think Osh can be a little bit better than he has,” Trotz said. “I mean, we’ve all seen Osh at a real high level. And he’s played at a high level for so long, so I don’t really expect him — he’s had a couple games that were not Oshie-like. The other day, right after the big kill there, that’s not T.J. Oshie-like, so it’s just like anything, he’ll respond. He’s too good of a pro and too good of a player. …
“He competes. I love him as a player. He’s an all-in guy, and he drives a lot of the things that we do. That line will get some production, and he’s gone on a little bit of a dry spell in the five-on-five, but that’ll come.”
Oshie played a season-low 12:10 against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night, and while that might have been because Washington took an early lead in that game and was able to roll four lines from there, it’s possible Trotz wasn’t as happy with the Vrana-Kuznetsov-Oshie trio as he was his others. On Tuesday night at Carolina, Oshie skated 15:36 and finished with a minus-1 rating.
“There was a couple games there where we had a lot of chances, and they would hit shafts or hit posts and just not really work out,” Oshie said. “It seemed like there was longer and longer periods of time between us getting shifts in the [offensive] zone and playing well. I think you could see a little frustration in all three of our eyes last night.”
After Oshie scored a career-high 33 goals last season, the Capitals re-signed the 30-year-old to an eight-year deal worth $5.75 million annually, and since he joined Washington two seasons ago, he has skated primarily with Ovechkin and Backstrom. On the season, Oshie has 11 goals and 13 assists for 24 points in 35 games, and seven of those goals have come on the power play, where Oshie plays in the “diamond” position directly in front of the net.
This was the fourth documented concussion Oshie has suffered in his career, and he said he has reacted differently in those first few games back each time.
“It was a little frustrating that it just kind of lurked around, some headaches and things like that,” Oshie said Monday. “But I’ve been good for a while now. I feel good.”
After defenseman Matt Niskanen didn’t play Tuesday night at Carolina, he was briefly on the ice before Washington’s Wednesday practice. Niskanen is considered “day-to-day” with an undisclosed upper-body injury, and this was his first time skating since the Capitals’ game against the Devils on Saturday.
Trotz said he doesn’t know yet whether Niskanen will be a full participant at Thursday’s practice.
“He’s obviously progressing,” Trotz said. “And how he made out today and how he feels tomorrow will indicate if he’s in or out.”