Monday's win against the Buffalo Sabres was a great game for the Capitals. Alex Ovechkin tied Brett Hull for fourth place in goals all-time and recorded his 600th assist, Tom Wilson scored twice, Connor McMichael scored his second goal in three games, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby made his NHL debut and Washington snapped a three-game losing streak. But if you peruse the stats from the game, there are two numbers that stand out as concerning: 24:14 and 25:29. That is the ice time for Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, respectively.
With Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha out injured plus Nic Dowd in and out of the lineup with a lower-body injury, head coach Peter Laviolette has had to adjust his lineup accordingly. On Monday, the top line barely came off the ice and that was in a game in which the Caps led the entire third period.
Much has been made of the number of rookies the team is playing and for good reason. Hendrix Lapierre, Brett Leason, Axel Jonss-Fjallby and Aliaksei Protas have all made their NHL debuts this season, plus Connor McMicahel and Martin Fehervary continue to see their roles increased. But as much as we talk about the rookies, what is less talked about is that most of them don't play very much. This is understandable, but with so many players missing, that playing time has to be made up somewhere and so far, it has been going to the top line.
As of Tuesday evening, Ovechkin ranks fifth among NHL forwards in average ice time at 21:46 per game. Kuznetsov ranks ninth with 21:33. Of the 10 forwards with the most ice time, Ovechkin is the oldest at 36. Kuznetsov is the third oldest at 29 with only Ovechkin and Anze Kopitar (34) older.
It's fun to say "Russian machine never breaks" when you hear these stats and, while what he is doing is truly remarkable, it does not change the fact that he is 36.
We have seen Ovechkin skip the All-Star Game in favor of resting for the latter half of the season. In 2022, however, he is going to be playing in a two-week Olympic tournament on the other side of the world.
It is not sustainable for the top line to play as much as it is, but that is especially true when considering we are talking about a 36-year-old and we add in the Olympics.
Laviolette will have no choice but to spread the minutes around the rest of the lineup.
Among the rookies who have played in more than one game, Lapierre is averaging only 9:35 of ice time and Leason is averaging 7:53. The coaches will have to put more trust in those players to carry a more significant role. In addition, the Caps need the other veterans to produce more offensively.
Lars Eller, Conor Sheary, Carl Hagelin, Daniel Sprong and Garnet Hathaway have combined for three goals.
The timetable for the team's litany of injuries is not publicly known. Internally, however, they will have a better idea of when they can expect these players back. If we are talking about longer-term injuries, the team will have to adjust just how the playing time is being distributed or its star players will run out of gas by the time the postseason rolls around.