The Washington Capitals stood in a circle around Coach Todd Reirden at center ice before the start of Saturday’s practice, a brief team meeting of sorts. The Capitals then moved on to an on-ice session that would reveal substantial lineup changes in response to their recent scoring struggles. Scoring one five-on-five goal in the past four games, the team’s first four-game losing skid of the season, will do that.
Most notably, Reirden has dropped center Evgeny Kuznetsov to the third line with wingers Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly. With Kuznetsov on the third line, center Lars Eller was between Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson on the second line, and forward T.J. Oshie moved to the top trio with captain Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Though Reirden said he’s not trying to single anybody out, it certainly feels like a message was being sent to Kuznetsov before Sunday’s matinee against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Kuznetsov has steadily collected points with eight goals and 30 assists through 41 games, but he has just one goal and six assists in the past 15 contests. General Manager Brian MacLellan hinted at some frustration with what can feel like an occasionally lackluster effort from the 26-year-old.
“For him, it’s always he plays the game at such a high level, how hard he wants to compete out there dictates — he could be one of the best players in the league if he chose to be,” MacLellan said last week.
It’s quite a fall for Kuznetsov, who was the team’s top center going into this season after leading the Capitals in scoring during the postseason with 12 goals and 20 assists in 24 playoff games. Then in his first 12 games of this year, he scored six goals with 11 assists. But he’s tallied just two goals since then, and just one of his eight goals has been scored at five-on-five. He suffered a concussion in mid-November that forced him to miss six games.
“It’s not a whole lot different from the rest of our team,” Reirden said. “Even-strength goals from him are not where they have been in the past. … I just don’t really feel like he’s gotten back to how he’s started the year yet. For me, I’m trying to put him in situations where that can happen better, whether it’s zone starts, whether it’s different linemates, where it’s different opportunities, talking to him — some guys respond differently to things. For us, he’s such an important part of our team. We need him going on all cylinders to have success as a team, and that’s how it is with all of our key guys.”
Washington’s offensive drought goes beyond Kuznetsov. Reirden has said his team has been “too perimeter,” and after the Capitals' 2-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Friday night, in which the team managed just 19 shots and among its fewest high-danger chances of the season, defenseman Matt Niskanen said the team needs “a little bit more meat and potatoes around their net” and “a little bit more workmanlike attitude.”
It starts with the forecheck, which has been slow, and spreads from there, to Washington’s issues on breakouts to poor execution on passes. The team has been struggling to generate a lot of offensive zone time, typically a strength.
“We’re a step late on our forecheck and not putting enough pucks in, so in turn, we’re not tilting the ice in our favor at all right now,” Reirden said. “We have too good of a team to be struggling to score goals. It’s got to come through work. It’s hard work to score in this league, and as the year goes on, it doesn’t get any easier. So we’ve got to continue to push our work ethic to where it has to be, and sometimes you go though phases where you’ve just got to get some ugly goals around the net and try to put more pucks into play in those situations and just kind of simplify things.”
With the Capitals' loss to the Islanders, they fell out of first place in the Metropolitan Division, and while that alone isn’t concerning, the cluttered Eastern Conference playoff picture doesn’t allow much breathing room for a prolonged slump. Washington has just one point more than Pittsburgh through 47 games, and the Penguins are in the second wild-card spot. The Capitals have just three games left before the all-star break, and on top of the rest of their issues, captain Alex Ovechkin will have to serve his one-game suspension for skipping the event either immediately before the break (against Toronto) or in the first game back (against Calgary).
On Saturday, Reirden said the lineup changes were designed to “jump-start some people” and the team’s best players in particular need to play better. Kuznetsov has been known to ramp his game up when the urgency is at its highest, so the Capitals are hopeful this could bring out his best once again.
“When your team’s winning, you’re always happy about it, but when your team’s losing, sometimes you need those types of challenges,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s the moment I like, when things not going well and you can see how a team can turn from bad situation to good situation. That’s the good challenge for us.”