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Lacking on the Left
Spoiler Alert: He doesn’t score. (Photo by Alena Schwarz)
Throughout the 2012-2013 season, the Washington Capitals have had lineup problems. First year head coach Adam Oates was not happy with the forward lineup until recently, and struggled early on to find players to could play together and produce. While the bottom six players have settled in lately, especially the third line in Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, and Joel Ward, the top six have not.
Before the lockout-shortened season started, it was assumed that star forwards, and Dynamo Moscow teammates, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom would play together. After a few games and a lot of uncharacteristic struggling early, the pair were split up. Now playing with first year Cap Mike Ribeiro and a new position at right wing, Ovechkin has started to look like the Russian sniper of old. While Backstrom has not been turning on a lot of red lights, he is second on the team in assists and tied for second in points while playing recently with right winger Troy Brouwer.
The problem with the top two lines is that there is no one on the roster who is filling in as a left wing. As of the beginning of Tuesday nights game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Jason Chimera and Wojtek Wolski are playing on the first and second line, respectively. Chimera currently has zero goals and seven assists, while being a minus three. Wolski, whose lack of offensive stats has been documented on this site, has two goals and two assists, while being a minus six. They are not the only players who have spent time on the top two lines. Both Marcus Johansson and Matt Hendricks have seen playing time with Ovechkin on the first line, with little to no offensive results.
The lack of production however has not carried over to their line mates, making the problem all the more interesting. Ribeiro and Ovechkin have combined for 36 points, while Backstrom and Brouwer have combined for 27. The question then becomes why are Chimera and Wolski unable to produce?
For Chimera, it could be because they are asking him to do more then he is capable of. While playing the checking line role throughout most of his career, he never scored more then 39 points, which he did during the 2011-2012 season. His 20 goals that season were a career high. While he has been gifted with incredible speed for someone of his size, his skill set is usually suited for someone whose job is to shut down the opposing teams top players.
Wolski is more of an enigma. Between his second and fifth season in the league Wolski produced no lower then 42 points, going as high as 50. However, after his fifth season, Wolski got no higher then 19 points. These are not the numbers typically associated with a top six forward.
Going forward, the Caps may not have any options for either line that is currently in the organization. Injured forward Brooks Laich could potentially play a top six role, but he may have been at his best last season while centering Ward and Chimera on the third line. He could possibly fill in on the left wing of the top line, if he plays this season, but like Chimera, that may be asking too much. He has been out all season with a groin injury which he picked up during the lockout.
After Laich, the only other player who could produce at a top six rate would be Fehr. While playing his last three seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Brandon Wheat Kings, Fehr scored 55, 84, and 111 points. However, that was between the 2002 and 2005 seasons. While his highest point total in the NHL is only 39, he has some of the tools to produce on a top six role.
Unless they make a trade, the team is going to be forced to use someone who may be playing beyond their skill set. While this may work against teams that are struggling, that may not be the case against some of the top teams in the East. There is still a lot of work to do for coach Oates and General Manager George McPhee before the season is over.