Adam Oates is patient, but even he could only wait so long before shaking up the Washington Capitals’ lineup, given that the team has won only two of its first seven games.
The Capitals coach made his first set of significant changes to the team’s configuration in Friday’s practice, which featured alterations on every forward line except the top unit and new defensive pairings.
“I know we talk a lot about chemistry, and that’s important,” Oates said. “I just felt that a couple guys weren’t playing good enough for the minutes they’re getting, and they need to know that.”
How long the new-look lineup will last remains to be determined, but there are certainly a few intriguing changes to take stock of against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night at Verizon Center to cap off a five-game homestand.
The most notable change is to the second line of Brooks Laich, Mikhail Grabovski and Troy Brouwer, which had produced just one even-strength goal through the first seven games. Martin Erat has been moved up to second-line left wing after spending the first seven games seeing the lowest ice time of his career (8 minutes 46 seconds on average) on the fourth line. Along with Erat’s promotion, Laich shifts to center and Grabovski moves down to the third line.
Giving Erat an opportunity to make a difference seemed like a logical step. The Capitals traded away their second-best prospect, forward Filip Forsberg, to acquire Erat from Nashville last spring for top-six depth but they have yet to establish exactly where he fits into their framework.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to get more ice time and play with those two guys and see how everything goes, how’s the chemistry, and go from there,” Erat said. “When you get more minutes, when you get the feel of the game, you feel better on the ice and every minute more you just get more confidence with the puck and you can trust yourself more.”
Laich played center often before Oates’s tenure, so he believes the transition will go smoothly.
“I consider myself a centerman, so my mind-set’s always that way,” Laich said. “I consider myself a two-way forward where if I’m the first guy back, I’m going to go low anyway. Just because I have the title of left wing doesn’t mean I’m obscured from playing down low in our zone. The switch for me going to center is just a position switch, it’s not a mind-set switch.”
Laich’s shift to center is also because of Oates moving Grabovski to the third unit, between veteran wingers Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. Grabovski got off to a fast start with a hat trick in the season opener, but has recorded two assists in the six games since.
“I moved Grabo back because I think maybe it’s been a lot, the system, for him where everybody’s had a year under it,” Oates said. “I think a couple mistakes are made based on that.”
Grabovski’s new location marks the end of Eric Fehr as a center for the time being, as he becomes part of the fourth-line rotation along with rookie Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti. It’s unclear who among that fourth-line group will sit as a healthy scratch against Columbus.
Washington did make a definitive decision regarding that unit Friday, opting to keep 19-year-old Wilson in the NHL rather than send him back to juniors.
“It’s awesome. It definitely makes me feel a little bit more comfortable,” said Wilson, the 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft. “I’ll be able to settle in a little bit and have the mind-set that I’m going to be around and start to get comfortable.”
Defensively, Karl Alzner and John Carlson have been reunited as a pairing after not working together exclusively since the beginning of last season, and rookie Nate Schmidt will make his fourth career NHL appearance against Columbus alongside Mike Green. Either John Erskine, who missed the past three games with an upper-body injury, or Alex Urbom will work with Steve Oleksy as the third pairing.
While some of the modifications may have been more expected than others, players were generally aware that given the inconsistent start, things couldn’t remain the way they were forever.
“You know it’s going to happen,” said Brouwer, who remains on the second line. “You can’t stick with the same lines the entire season, especially when you’re not producing.”