Less than 24 hours after he had played back-to-back games to open the season, Brett Connolly was still grappling with his new reality as a top-line forward for the Washington Capitals. He wondered: Even after helping spearhead an offensive burst of 13 goals against the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, what could he improve on while playing alongside two of the planet’s best players in Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov?
Connolly knew a brain he could pick. On Friday night, he texted the player he replaced on the first line, Tom Wilson, who two days earlier had been suspended for 20 games. Their styles clash, but they found common ground in their conversation on how to play with the Russian superstars. They talked about keeping the puck alive, relentlessly working for chances and feeling out the game as much as possible.
“You just have to play and be confident and try to make reads off those guys,” said Connolly, who continued to skate with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov on the first line during practice Saturday and Sunday. As Washington braces for life without Wilson for nearly a quarter of the regular season, it will rely on other personnel — currently Connolly — to play alongside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, whose otherworldly skills suggest such a transition would be easy.
But as Connolly has learned over the past week, it’s actually a much trickier proposition. One of Wilson’s strengths is how he complements Ovechkin and Kuznetsov with his physicality, allowing him to carve out his own space on the ice. But other players, especially those lacking Wilson’s size, might defer too often to such creative offensive players. Connolly said his focus was to simplify his role as much as possible: compete for the puck to set up scoring opportunities for Ovechkin, and get the puck to Kuznetsov on the rush as quickly as possible.
“If anybody could play first line, everyone would be first-line players. It’s just a matter of getting used to each other a little bit,” Connolly said. “I think Ovi is, for the most part, pretty predictable when he’s making his plays. He’s a shooter first. But with Kuzy, I think he’s one of the more unique players in the league. He’s got a confidence level to his game unlike I’ve ever seen before.”
Connolly has had his share of looks through the first two games, putting eight shots on goal, and he notched an assist in Thursday’s 7-6, overtime loss at Pittsburgh. He’s looking to carry over production from last season’s Stanley Cup run, when his 53.3 on-ice shot attempt percentage (226 shot attempts for vs. 198 shot attempts against) led the team. He has found rhythm for stretches with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov: In two games, the trio has logged more than 24 minutes at five-on-five, posting 24 shot attempts (a 51.06 shot attempt percentage), 15 shots on goal (a 57.79 shots percentage) and two goals.
“I think they’ve been able to create offensively and get some opportunities. [Connolly and Wilson are] not the same player, clearly; they play a different style of game,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “But I think Brett does a good job of getting himself to scoring areas and setting up a number of chances. Over two games, obviously, you score those number of goals, they had a big impact in it. I think he has the skill set to move up and down our lineup, and we’ll continue to look for the right fit.”
On the ice, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov converse in Russian and feed off each other’s movements naturally. For the line’s third member, the Capitals have searched for the right fit in every corner of the roster when Wilson has been unavailable, including when he was suspended for three games against Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season. T.J. Oshie isn’t really an option because he has been paired with Nicklas Backstrom as a shutdown duo on the second line.
Devante Smith-Pelly, Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana all logged time on the first line with Wilson out last year. Smith-Pelly worked there in stints, but not for the long term. Vrana and Andre Burakovsky remain options, but the drawback is that their presence on the line potentially brings defensive vulnerabilities. And Stephenson could play on the top line, too, but he has little experience there.
“That’s something you always have be prepared for,” Stephenson said. “Tom is huge for [Ovechkin and Kuznetsov]. He opens up the ice for them with his physical play.”
Washington picked up Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers Tuesday to bolster its forward depth while anticipating Wilson’s suspension. Jaskin has similar size and physicality as Wilson, so he could be an option on the top line down the road, depending on how he adapts to his new team. For now, the position appears to be Connolly’s, and he’s leveraging every resource he can — including advice from Wilson — to learn how to thrive on the top line.
“You just have to stick with it, try to get open as much as you can, compete for pucks,” Connolly said, “and the offense will come with those guys.”