The Caps are struggling of late and the top six is a big reason why. Washington has lost three of its last four games and has been outscored in those four games 17-9, but the top six’s problems have been lingering for longer than just these past four games.
Nicklas Backstrom has only two even strength points in his last 13 games and no goals since Oct. 14. T.J. Oshie is producing well on the power play, but he is also struggling five-on-five with one goal and four assists in his past 17 games.
Likewise, the second line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Devante Smith-Pelly is also struggling. They have not scored an even-strength point in six games.
A team cannot be successful if its top players are not producing offensively. Do these recent struggles show that it is time for Washington to go back to the Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie line?
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Despite their past success, the trio has not started together at any point this season. Head coach Barry Trotz denied on Tuesday that he has any hesitancy towards putting those three back together and pointed out that he did actually use that line in the team’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
“In Colorado I tried to do that,” Trotz said, “Put Ovi, Osh and Backstrom against their second line and they allowed that and they didn't get any production so I'm trying it. Their top line outplayed our top line.”
When asked why he had not used the line from the start of a game, Trotz essentially dismissed the question saying, “Just don’t feel like it.”
Despite Trotz’s denial, there does seem to be some hesitancy from him to go back to a line that has been incredibly successful in the past. Backstrom and Ovechkin have been on the ice five-on-five for a grand total of 16:46 this season. In addition to Oshie who has been his consistent linemate, Backstrom has spent more even-strength ice time with Andre Burakovsky, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Tom Wilson than he has with Ovechkin.
One reason is Trotz remains unconcerned with Backstrom’s slump. While he may not be generating points, the chances are still there.
“Against Minnesota [Backstrom] could have had a hat trick and they're not going in easy for him,” Trotz said. “I think you have more concern when you're not getting any chances than when you are getting chances. When you're getting chances, you're obviously getting the good spots, you're doing lots of good things, they're just not going in for you. When you're not getting any chances and any looks, then it gets frustrating for you.”
Another reason is Backstrom’s defensive responsibilities. He is one of the team’s top shutdown forwards and defense is not a strong part of Ovechkin’s game. It is hard to put Backstrom in shut down situations if his line is not suited for those responsibilities.
Let’s say the Caps do unite Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie. What would the rest of the forward lines look like?
Here’s a possible projection:
Stephenson – Kuznetsov – Vrana
Connolly – Eller – Wilson
Smith-Pelly – Beagle – Chiasson
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You can make your own lineup, but you can see there’s not a whole lot of depth behind that top line. This team is not nearly as deep as it has been in years past and the forward lines look even thinner when you put Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie all together on the top. This would be an incredibly top-heavy lineup and it is hard to find success that way.
Then again, they top-six is not having much success now.
Oshie admitted after practice Thursday he would like to see that line reunited, but he remains confident in Trotz’s lineup choices.
“Whatever [Trotz] thinks,” Oshie said. “My game doesn't change much from playing with one player to the next. We've played together at times this year, we've had a couple shifts together so I think he's just still trying to see what works and what he can use. I think we know that we can have success playing us three together. Whatever the lines are is just fine with me.”