Obviously the two biggest additions to the Washington Capitals this off-season have been the signing of Justin Williams, and the trade for T.J. Oshie. With the addition of those two pieces, last seasons weakness has become an area of strength. While each player is an upgrade over this past season they each have their own strengths as well. I want to take a moment and explain why I see the lines shaking out like I do.
First lets take a look at Williams. Probably the best comparison to Williams in recent Capitals memory would be Mike Knuble. Williams has the ability to go to the paint and score dirty goals, screen the opposing goalie and play a solid defensive game at the other end of the ice. He also has the experience the Capitals were looking for with 3 Stanley Cup wins and a Conn Smythe under his belt. Mike Knuble on steroids may be the best description.
I really think the slotting centers around Williams. The obvious argument, given the comparison to Knuble, would be to put him on the 1st line with Ovechkin and Backstrom and try to recreate the success they had with Knuble. While I don’t discount that possibility, and I do expect he will get some time with the first line, I see one major argument against that line of thinking. Justin Williams hasn’t played first line minutes since the 2006-2007 season in Carolina. That year he averaged 20:51 and 19:17 the following year. Since that time he’s averaged 16:47 a night and just 15:49 last season on Los Angeles. It’s hard to see how you’d want to bump a 33 soon to be 34-year-old 14 year veterans minutes by as much as would be needed to play on the 1st line. By comparison, Alex Ovechkin averaged 20:20 a game last season which was his lowest number in 3 years, and down more than a minute from his averages the first 6 years of his career. I just don’t see adding 4-5 minutes a night to a 34-year-old, and I don’t think coach Trotz will try it as a long-term solution. I think Williams is destined for the 2nd line where he can utilize his skills as a compliment to Kuznetsov and Burakovsky/Johansson. I think they need and want a veteran presence and influence on that 2nd line, and Williams is the perfect fit there. The 3rd line isn’t impossible, but I don’t think Williams was brought in to play on the 3rd line.
So what does T.J. Oshie bring to the table? Many of the same skills as Williams but not tilted to the same degree, and he has some unique skills Williams doesn’t. Williams scores his goals in front of the net, between the circles and from the center of the circles in. Of his 18 goals this past season, 11 came from that area. 4 left and 7 right. Of the other 7 goals, 6 were from within the right circle and half of those were center in. If we look at T.J. Oshie’s spread, we again see a lot of goals right in front. 8 of 20 from roughly the same spot where Williams scored most of his goals but only 2 in the right circle. What Oshie brings is scoring from everywhere. 5 goals from outside of the circles and 1 from the goal line on the left side. It’s obvious Oshie skates more than Williams and is more of a threat from anywhere on the ice. He can still get to the paint and reek havoc there just as Williams does.
Looking at Oshie’s skills and considering what he’d likely see skating on a line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, its pretty easy to see the damage he should be able to do. Anyone skating with that pair will see more open ice, and Oshie is clearly the more dangerous (between he and Williams) at of taking advantage of that extra space. Given the talent around him, it’s hard to see how Oshie doesn’t have the best offensive season of his career skating with Ovechkin and Backstrom. He’s never had the offensive threat Ovechkin represents as a line partner or the passing of Backstrom to feed him the puck. The closest he’s come, in a career year for Alexander Steen, Oshie buried 21 goals and 39 assists. It’s entirely realistic, I would say even expected, that Oshie will put up the best numbers of his career. 25-30 goals isn’t just possible, it should be expected. 35-40 assists to go along and a 70 point season isn’t unrealistic.
There is no doubt Oshie could be productive on the 2nd line as well. He wouldn’t get as much space as he would with Ovechkin and Backstrom, but he would still arguably be on the best line he’s ever played on. Given the potential he has with the 1st line and the potential minutes problem with Williams on the 1st line, I don’t expect we’ll see a ton of Oshie on the 2nd line. He would have to catch fire with that group, or Williams catch fire with the 1st line, before I see the two swapping positions for more than a few games.
The wildcard is Marcus Johansson. It could be argued that Johansson is a proven commodity playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom. The problem with that argument is I don’t see that we went out to get Williams and Oshie to keep Marcus on the 1st line. He might well get some time there, but if he’s playing there every night as the season goes on, the plans laid down over the summer have gone off the tracks. Johansson is more likely fighting for the 2nd line left-wing with Andre Burakovsky, and the loser taking up the left-wing on the 3rd line. Burakovsky might see some time on the 1st line but as with Johansson, if we see it every night, it means something else hasn’t gone to plan.
My best guess is the top 6 looks a lot like:
Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie
Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, Williams
These aren’t the only possible combinations obviously, but they are the combination that make the most sense logically as a starting point. And then the games begin and everything you think you know changes! It should be interesting to see how it all shakes out as the season progresses.
By Ernie Mudd