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Breaking down the Caps' new fourth line roster battle

Breaking down the Caps' new fourth line roster battle

When Capitals training camp opens in September, there will not be much intrigue when it comes to the top-nine on offense. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik, and Jakub Vrana—assuming he is re-signed—will make up the team’s top three lines.

But with two new additions to the roster through free agency, it appears Todd Reirden is going to have to make a decision as to who plays on the fourth line.

The fourth line was an area in which the team needed to improve and general manager Brian MacLellan was aggressive in addressing that need giving the team at least five players battling for three spots in the lineup. Here’s a breakdown of the only real roster battle offensively for the Caps heading into next season.

Locked in

Nic Dowd

Last year the departure of Jay Beagle made fourth-line center one of the few spots up for grabs in training camp. That is not the case this year. Dowd won the job and seems pretty entrenched in this role moving forward as he was given a three-year extension. The offensive upside is limited as his eight goals last season were a career-high, but his 22 points matched Beagle’s production from the year prior so it is not as if the offensive output of the fourth line has taken a step back with Dowd.

Dowd was also a regular on the penalty kill and he was the only center on the team to have a faceoff win percentage of over 50 at 51.9-percent.

Pencil him in

Garnet Hathaway

When you break down the Caps’ moves this offseason, it is pretty clear the goal for MacLellan was to improve the team defensively. Hathaway’s career-high in goals is 11, which isn’t bad for a fourth-liner, but the real asset he brings is his defensive acumen. He averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice time per game last season with the Calgary Flames.

But the real reason Hathaway appears to essentially be a lock to play a significant role on the fourth line next season is his contract. You do not sign a fourth-line player for four years at $1.5 million per year if you think he is going to spend most of the season as a healthy scratch. That’s a significant contract for a player with his role so it is clear the team envisions him being a regular in the lineup.

The guys who need to impress in training camp

Brendan Leipsic

Hathaway’s contract is a dead giveaway as to what the team envisions his role is going forward. Leipsic was also a free agent signing, but his deal is only for one year and $700,000. MacLellan seems to love going for those low-risk contracts and this is the latest example.

Washington will be Leipsic’s fifth NHL team in his three-year NHL career. In 126 career games, he has 13 goals and 48 total points. His best season offensively came last year as he set career-highs in goals (seven) and points (23) with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.

The thing about Leipsic to keep in mind is that this was a move MacLellan did not have to make. After the team signed Panik and Hathaway, many assumed the team was done. At that point, the team appeared to have a full offensive roster with 12 forwards under contract plus Chandler Stephenson qualified as a restricted free agent. Yet, MacLellan decided to sign Leipsic anyway which all but ensures that someone is going to be moved before the start of the season. The team is just too close against the cap to carry two extra forwards and someone will have to be sent to Hershey or traded.

This is not a move you make unless you are not satisfied with what your fourth line options are. Leipsic will have to earn his spot in training camp, but I would give him the inside track over Stephenson and Travis Boyd at this point.

Travis Boyd

Boyd’s 2018-19 season had its ups and downs. His first full season in the NHL got off to a rocky start as an injury kept him out of the lineup for all of October, thus ending any chance he had of beating out Dowd at fourth-line center. It may have been moot anyway as Boyd appears to be more of an NHL wing than a center, but that versatility can be an asset.

Boyd’s offensive numbers were reasonably good with five goals and 15 assists in 53 games. MacLellan’s moves this offseason, however, show that he wants the fourth line to improve defensively and that was a real struggle for Boyd. His 5-on-5 high-danger chances for percentage in 2018-19 was the lowest on the team at 39.52-percent and was among the worst in the NHL. When you watch him play, it does not appear that he has adjusted to a bottom-six role very well as he continues to use ineffective offensive moves that, while they may have been successful in college and the AHL, he just does not have the skill to pull them off at the NHL level. It is frustrating for a team when the fourth line turns the puck over because Boyd tries a spin move in front of the net that is easily stopped by the defense and pushed up and out of the zone.

Boyd needs to stop playing like a top-six AHL forward and start playing like a bottom-six NHL forward because that is what his skill dictates his NHL future will be.

On the outside looking in

Chandler Stephenson

Stephenson has great speed and can be an effective penalty killer, but it is hard not to see the additions of Hathaway and Leipsic as an indictment of his play. In 2017-18, he scored six goals and 12 assists with a plus-13. In 2018-19, he managed just five goals and six assists and was a minus-13 despite getting comparable ice time from the season before. His stats were not the result of a reduced role, just reduced effectiveness.

It is not just the free agent moves that show you he may be in trouble. Look back to last season when the team acquired Hagelin. One of Hagelin’s best assets is how effective a penalty killer he is. That is supposed to be an asset of Stephenson’s as well. Prior to the team trading for Hagelin, Stephenson averaged 1:54 of shorthanded ice time per game. After? Just 0:58. His shorthanded ice time dropped by almost a full minute which suggests the coaches may not have been all that thrilled with his play on the PK last season.

Prospects

If MacLellan felt he had prospects ready to fill out the roster, he would have done that instead of turning to free agency. It would have been a cheaper alternative both in terms of salary and term. But MacLellan instead went for veteran players and bluntly explained that decision afterward.

“We don't have young forwards ready to step in and play third line,” he said on a conference call on the opening day of free agency. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about where the team sees its forward prospect depth.

If there are any prospects who can make a push for a spot on the fourth line next season, there are two to keep in mind. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is a player with a similar skillset to Hagelin. He has NHL speed and can be a solid penalty killer and bottom-six player.

The second is Shane Gersich, a fast player who came straight to the Caps after signing out of college in 2018, but who spent the last season in the AHL with Hershey.

Jonsson-Fjallby left early in the season to return to his native Sweden last year and has only 16 games of North American experience. It is hard to imagine he will be ready to make the jump to North American’s highest level out of training camp. Having watched Gersicih play in the playoffs, he looks like a player still very much in need of another year in the AHL to adjust to playing in the pros.

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Boyd, Jaskin sizzle as the Caps' fourth line continues to stay ahead of the curve

Boyd, Jaskin sizzle as the Caps' fourth line continues to stay ahead of the curve

Fresh off of a third-star recognition, Travis Boyd returned to home ice to score less than eleven minutes into Tuesday night’s game as the Capitals hosted the Detroit Red Wings.

Saturday’s goal, versus Columbus, was the first of Boyd’s career. The fact that his second came not even four days later may seem unusual – but with the Capitals’ fourth line cruising, it’s hardly a surprise.

The fourth line, consisting of Boyd, Nic Dowd, and Dmitrij Jaskin, has been together the past three games since Tom Wilson sustained an upper-body injury and the lineup changed. That version of the fourth line has combined for eight points in three wins. 

Dowd has had the most sustained success with seven points in his past nine games (three goals, four assists) - though not all of that came with Jaskin and Boyd. But together the trio continues to show that it shouldn’t be overlooked with significant contributions towards the team’s scoring.

“I think right now we're just having fun together,” Boyd said after the 6-2 win against the Red Wings. “It's kind of funny, you play games and you start making plays together and all of a sudden, it's kind of like a snowball effect. The more plays you make, the more confidence you get and it just kind of keeps going.”

The fourth line’s newfound confidence – and the fun they’re having with it – is tangible. Jaskin, after chipping past Detroit defenseman Mike Green, hustled to avoid an icing call and then helped feed Dowd, who passed to Boyd for a goal that put Washington ahead 2-0 just 10:50 into the game. 

The play looked effortless – so much so that the Red Wings were frustrated by the end of the first, down 3-0. It wasn’t until the third period that Detroit was finally able to get on the board thanks to a goal by Dylan Larkin that held up after a coach’s challenge for goalie interference.

Larkin spoke to the struggle to counter Washington’s fourth line’s success..

“There’s no bad players in this league,” Larkin said. “Whoever scores, it’s disappointing. But the next shift is the most important. We got penned in our zone a little too much tonight.”

Capitals coach Todd Reirden had high praise for the line’s developing chemistry.

“[There’s] a lot of chemistry,” Reirden said. “They're playing well and it’s great to see them get rewarded, and they could have had a couple more. They play the right way for the most part.”

Though Boyd, Dowd, and Jaskin have been outstanding in the past few games, it isn’t a completely new development, but rather, an improvement on a larger goal.

“It's something talked about in the summer,” Reirden said. “[There’s an] importance of having depth scoring and I think that was something we struggled with in the first 10 games of the year, getting scoring from that bottom six. Now it's been a really big part of our success.“

As the league evolves, requiring more skill and versatility from more players, Reirden remains positive that the Caps are ahead of the curve.

“The days of just having a fourth line guy that would be your tough guy, that's kind of gone away,” Reirden said. “I think where we're headed, [if] you can get offensive production from that fourth line, you become a very difficult team to match up against. That's a luxury as a coach if you can have that type of depth. Credit all goes to how our players have bought in and taken advantage of their opportunities. They've been given them, they've earned and deserved to be in that situation they're in right now.”

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Fourth line producing unexpected points for Capitals

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Fourth line producing unexpected points for Capitals

CAPITAL ONE ARENA — With the holidays approaching, the Capitals’ fourth line has been the gift that keeps on giving.
 
Given injuries on the forward lines, head coach Todd Reirden put Nic Dowd, Chandler Stephenson and Dmitri Jaskin together on the fourth line, looking to spark offense and chemistry between the three forwards. So far, he’s seen just that.
 
“They’re committed to playing the way that our entire team needs to play to have success,” Reirden said. “Every line has a little different skill level and chemistry to it. They’re really understanding how their line can have success.”
 
The trio has combined for nine points in their last five games and has been one of Washington’s strongest combinations recently. Though they’re a fairly new line, Stephenson explained why they’ve been able to develop a connection quickly.
 
“I think we’ve been playing together enough that we’ve just found chemistry and we’re just starting to get a feel for each other a little bit more and how one another plays and just rolling right now and having fun with it,” Stephenson said.
 
Dowd has three goals in his last four games and points in four of his last five and Stephenson scored his first goal in 20 games in Sunday’s 6-5 loss to Anaheim. Jaskin also has three assists in his last three games.
 
The fourth line has been able to play a solid two-way game also, maintaining possession, but controlling the puck when they’re on the ice. That’s really what has helped them incorporate more offense into their game.
 
“I just think when we’re on the ice, all five guys are playing well and we’re getting out of our defensive zone. We’re not spending a lot of time down there and we’re giving ourselves opportunity in the [offensive] zone,” Dowd said. “I think what’s basically changed is we’re holding onto more pucks and creating more opportunities and we’re getting rewarded for it.”
 
Overall, the Capitals’ offense has been surging of late, scoring at least three goals per games since Nov. 16, and the fourth line has since been playing a bigger role in that. Washington will need that to continue as they embark on a three-game road trip, starting against the Vegas Golden Knights Tuesday.
 
“They put the work in, they put the time in, they don’t play an easy, flashy game,” Reirden said. “They put the pucks to the net when they have opportunities and sometimes bounces will go your way…That line did some good things for us [Sunday] and they have throughout the last six, seven games in particular. That was a good, positive thing to see.”

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