ARLINGTON, Va. -- One of the question marks for the Capitals heading into the 2019-20 season was the third line. With Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky’s departure in the offseason, the team lost a lot of its depth scoring. In their place, general manager Brian MacLellan signed forward Richard Panik as an unrestricted free agent and also re-signed Carl Hagelin.
Now 25 games into the season, the Caps are tied for the most points in the NHL and tied for fourth in goals per game, but that has largely been despite the third line’s lack of production, not because of it. But while the fans are already clamoring for change, general manager Brian MacLellan has not seen enough of that line to draw any conclusions just yet.
The projected third line at the start of the season was Lars Eller at center with Hagelin and Panik on the wings. So far, Eller has five goals and eight assists, but none of those points came from the Hagelin, Eller, Panik trio. Hagelin has five assists and has yet to score this season.
Panik seems to have struggled the most with only one goal to show for his first 15 games with Washington.
“For him, it's been up and down,” MacLellan said. “His performance has been good and it's been not so good. But we've got to give him some time to fit in and to play with his normal linemates for a stretch during the season.”
Still, MacLellan stressed patience on Tuesday, saying the biggest issue for the trio of Hagelin, Eller and Panik is the simple fact that they have not been able to play together all that much yet.
“I don't know that we've had the opportunity to see that line and whether it works or it doesn't work yet,” MacLellan said. “I think we saw Hagelin and Eller last year. It seemed to work for us the last part of the year. I'd like a bigger sample size to see all three of those guys work together.”
According to Natural Stat Trick, Hagelin, Eller and Panik have zero goals when playing together as a line 5-on-5, but have only played together in eight games this season for a grand total of 23:13. That is hardly what you could call a fair sample size to judge any sort of chemistry they may have as a line.
Injuries have limited Panik and Hagelin to just 15 and 17 games respectively, while Eller has enjoyed time on the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov suspended to start the season and now with Nicklas Backstrom out injured. Panik also played on the fourth line for a stretch after struggling at the start of the season.
Will the third line find the same level of production as it did last season with Connolly being a major offensive weapon, or the year before with Burakovsky, Eller and Connolly? No. That much seems certain. But MacLellan did not assemble this trio with the intent of replicating that level of production.
"I think we changed the identity of our third line,” MacLellan said. “It became more penalty kill focused, more two-way focused than it was last year.”
“Ideally, we'd like to have a line that could kill penalties, that can play against top-six forwards and produce 5-on-5,” he added. “Not to the level that we had last year, because I don't feel we need that much production. We need more two-way game.”
After dealing with several injuries, it appears the Caps are finally trending in the right direction health-wise. Once the team does get back to full strength again, you can bet getting that trio together is going to be a priority so the team can finally, finally start to figure out just what this third line can do.
“We haven't seen that line together much,” MacLellan said. “As we get healthy, I think we'll have a better indication of whether it works or it doesn't work.”
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