With a fourth line that has too few spots for the Washington Capitals' deep forward corps, Coach Todd Reirden tried a rotation, switching up which three players were in the lineup every game because no one ever really deserved to be out. It’s “a good problem to have,” as center Nicklas Backstrom put it, but after three weeks of that, it simply became a problem.
“It hasn’t allowed us to come up on the right side of some of the results,” Reirden said. “It’s important that we emphasize taking advantage of your opportunity, and when you do, you’ll be in the lineup.”
The Capitals changed little about their Stanley Cup-winning roster from last season, but the fourth line saw the most upheaval with management wanting more speed and skill there. Center Travis Boyd was promoted to the NHL after years in the American Hockey League, Nic Dowd was signed in free agency, and Dmitrij Jaskin was claimed off waivers before the season.
Along with returning wingers Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly, Washington has five players for its fourth trio, and it seems to score no matter which combination is on the ice. The Capitals have scored 47 five-on-five goals in 17 games since the start of December, and the fourth line has contributed 10 of them, impressive considering it gets the least amount of ice time.
Reirden has plenty of options, and now that the coach has opted against a rotation, the challenge for him is settling on one.
“It’s unfortunate there’s one too many guys because they all deserve to be playing every night,” goaltender Braden Holtby said.
“They’re playing great, and you’ve got to tip your hat to them because sometimes they’re not in the lineup and they’ve got to wait,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “They’ve got to watch their buddies, cheer them on and then make a difference when they come back in. It seems like whatever guy comes out there and jumps on that unit, they make a difference in the game, and that’s what you need out of those guys.”
Based on the past week, Reirden’s preferred fourth line is Boyd centering Stephenson and Smith-Pelly, and while Boyd and Dowd had been alternating games in the lineup, Stephenson and Smith-Pelly are relatively stable because of their importance to the team’s penalty kill. They’re often among the first forwards over the boards when Washington is shorthanded, both averaging roughly two minutes per game in that situation.
Boyd has built an impressive case for himself. Skating an average of 10:10 per game, he has four goals and eight assists, tied for the eighth-best even-strength points per 60 minutes in the NHL. But Dowd has similar numbers with four goals and nine assists. He’s on pace for a career year offensively — his best season was two years ago, when he scored six goals with 16 assists in 70 games for the Los Angeles Kings. Had Backstrom not been too ill to play Tuesday night against Philadelphia, however, Dowd would have been a healthy scratch for a third straight game. With Backstrom expected back Thursday in Boston, Dowd will probably be pushed out again.
Jaskin is further down the depth chart. He’s played in just one of the Capitals’ past nine games, and it was against his former team in St. Louis. Though he has just one goal with six assists this season, his current predicament isn’t necessarily an indictment of his play. Reirden has praised Jaskin’s improvement over the past three months and said he “is not even the same player” the Capitals acquired.
“Right now, it’s frustrating for all of us because we’re all playing well and we all want to play,” Dowd said. “It’s never something where you’re angry at the guy who stepped in for you because you’re going to be the guy who takes that guy out eventually. If anything, you can be upset at the situation. It does suck. Everyone wants to be playing, and all of us deserve to be playing.
“But I don’t think it makes it any easier that guys are playing well. It’s almost harder that everyone’s playing well and you’re still sitting. I’m sure that runs through all of our heads.”
The Capitals prefer fierce internal competition to none at all, and though it’s friendly, it can be awkward. The players vying for the same lineup spot are often around each other most, running through drills together. They’re still expected to cheer one another because it’s in the best interest of the team. But a good result could mean the guys sidelined will have to wait even longer. Or in the case of Washington, even playing relatively well may not be enough lineup security.
“It could be that the guy who takes your spot one night, all of a sudden, you get to play with him the next night,” Boyd said. “And if things go well, you get a goal and he assists on it or something. We’re pushing each other. If you sit out two straight games and you watch the fourth line go out there and score and then the next night they have another good night with a bunch of chances, you know that when you get a chance to play, you better do something.”’’