ARLINGTON – On Thursday in San Jose, Todd Reirden’s lineup included Dmitrij Jaskin, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly playing on the fourth line. That was a different line than in the previous game when Stephenson and Smith-Pelly played on the wings with Nic Dowd at center. Two games prior to that, Dowd was the center with Jaskin and Travis Boyd as his wings.
And on it has gone all season as the Caps continue to shuffle their fourth line in search of the best combination for what the team hopes will be another lengthy playoff run.
Washington returned almost the exact same team from last year’s Stanley Cup champion squad. One exception was the fourth line, as center Jay Beagle left in free agency. While it is not uncommon to see fourth lines shuffle throughout the season as coaches try to get their scratches into the lineup, there has been no constant to the fourth. While last season, you knew who the center was even if you did not know the wings, it is unclear who if anyone has taken control of a fourth line spot with less than a third of the season remaining.
“It’s challenging,” Dowd said. “I don't think anybody will tell you any differently.”
“Last year, there was a little bit of shuffling, but for the majority it was you know who your center is for sure,” Smith-Pelly said. “For the second half, it was me, [Beagle] and [Stephenson] a majority of the games so that made things a little bit easier, but at the same time, things happen. You've got to be able to play with anybody. Of course it's not the ideal situation, but that's just the way it is.”
At this point of the season, it is pretty clear what the top three lines would be if the playoffs started tomorrow. What the fourth line will look like, however, is anyone’s guess as no combination has gained an upper hand over any of the others.
Part of the issue for the Caps has been the myriad of injuries and roster issues the team has faced unlike in prior years such as Tom Wilson’s early suspension and an early injury that kept Boyd out until November. The trickledown effect has had a major impact on the bottom line. But even when healthy, Reirden has continued shuffling the bottom line with regularity, preventing any combination to gain much consistency at all.
“That does get tough, especially when maybe you're playing good, you put together a couple good games or whatever it may be,” Boyd said. “Your mindset in the game is something that you can't really replicate in practice no matter how hard you try. So if you end up missing a game or two, it usually takes a period or so to kind of get back into that game mode where you've got to be thinking fast enough and that physcial contact part and all that.”
“I think you can only do your best to manage your own game and then when you step in there,” Dowd said, “I think that importance of keeping it simple and allowing guys that you haven't played with in a while or maybe you haven't played with them all year, to allow guys to play within the system and know where you are and then if you get some games under your belt and you play together a while, then you can start kind of creating chemistry and creating reads off each other.”
For Reirden, however, this is all part of the plan. Once the trade deadline is reached and he knows what officially what his roster will be, then we should finally get an idea of who has the upper-hand on the fourth line.
“For me, until that deadline passes then you're not really married to anything because as we know things can change in the game,” Reirden said. “But after that, at that point then you want to try to get something pretty consistent.”
After the Feb. 25 deadline, however, Washington will have only 19 games left in the season. Will that be enough time for the fourth line to gel?
“It's not the ideal situation, but that is the situation we're in,” Smith-Pelly said. “You have to be able to adjust and you've got to play well with whoever the center is. Don't really use that as an excuse, you've just got to figure it out.”
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