Nearly a half hour after the official portion of Washington Capitals’ practice wrapped up and long after every other veteran player headed into the dressing room Thursday morning, Troy Brouwer was still on the ice.
He worked in the corners, exchanged passes with the rookies who remained and looked to the fundamental aspects of his game to help put him back on track after a rough start to the season both offensively and overall.
“There are certain aspects of my game that I’m not happy with,” Brouwer said after that lengthy session. “Puck control in the corners and being able to make an outlet pass — something you should be able to do when you’re a little kid — but for some reason I’m having a little trouble with it. [I’m] just out there trying to get a little bit better, trying to improve my game and just get more confidence.”
A week before the Capitals’ season began, Coach Adam Oates was asked which player on the roster he expected to have a breakout year. He responded quickly with Brouwer’s name. The prediction seemed sensible, considering the veteran winger produced at a career-best pace during last winter’s lockout-shortened season, recording 19 goals and 33 points in just 47 games, and would continue receiving considerable responsibility in all on-ice situations.
But through the first 28 games of this season, Brouwer has recorded just five goals and nine points. He has only one goal in the past 15 games — far from what is expected of Washington’s second-line right wing and fixture on the top power-play unit.
As he does with every player, though, Oates has urged the veteran winger not to focus on the offensive statistics but rather on his overall game. Regardless of his production, Brouwer is entrusted by Oates at even strength and special teams play. He’s the only forward to average more than two minutes on both the power play (3 minutes 45 seconds) and penalty kill (2:13).
“I talked to him about a week ago [and told him] that ‘You’re vital to us. Numbers are irrelevant, like every guy on our team. You’re first PP, first PK,’ ” Oates said. “‘We pull the goalie, you’re on. They pull the goalie, you’re on. Four-on-four, you play. Overtime, you play. You’re a top-six forward, versatile, and like I’ve always said, I don’t care about numbers. Just play.’”
Brouwer, 28, still expects himself to contribute offensively and knows he plays a big part in creating the secondary production the Capitals need for a balanced attack. He has struggled to find a rhythm with rotating linemates this season, though he dismisses that as an excuse, and his role has changed in subtle ways based on who is on his line.
Last season, when Brouwer shot at a 17.1 percent clip, the highest since he won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in the 2009-10 season, he was the designated shooter on his line. Mike Ribeiro, now with the Phoenix Coyotes, worked to create plays and didn’t want the puck back, allowing Brouwer to focus on putting himself in scoring positions to make the most of those opportunities.
“You always have to change your game. You always have to evolve, depending on who you’re playing with,” Brouwer said. “This year Fehrsie’s a good shooter, Grabo’s scoring goals. Just a little bit of a different aspect of our game out there. [The team needs] a little bit different role for me this year, and I’ve got to get better at what my linemates need me to do.”
Fehr admitted that because he and Brouwer have similar goal-seeking tendencies, they sometimes will overcomplicate plays or overthink when presented with opportunities to shoot.
“I think it makes us a little too unselfish. Sometimes we think, ‘Well, he might be open. He has a shot.’ When in reality the both of us just need to take more shots, find rebounds and just try to make it work out after that,” Fehr said. “I think we’re trying to be too fancy at times, and we’ve just got to shoot the puck more to create some more offense.”
Oates wants to make certain Brouwer doesn’t become blinded by the point totals. Sure, offensive production is important, but he doesn’t want frustration from a lack of goals to bleed into other parts of Brouwer’s game and lead him to make mistakes that cost the Capitals more overall.
“He’s a physical guy, so his go-to when he’s struggling is to go hit someone, and that’s great. We need the physicality for sure,” Oates said. “But there was once in the offensive zone he went to hit the defenseman and the puck went through his legs because he was so overthinking. To me, that’s when he’s in a slump. He’ll score goals when the opportunity arises.”