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Oh, Left Wing, Where Art Thou?

Posted March 16, 2013

Ovechkin feels the pain of not having a left wing. (Photo by Alena Schwarz)

Last summer, General Manager George McPhee knew he was going to have a different offense for his team than in previous years. It wasn’t just because of head coach Adam Oates’ new system, but because of significant roster moves. Leaving town were offensive weapons Alexander Semin and Dennis Wideman, replaced with cap-friendly players  Wojtek Wolski and Jack Hillen, as well as a healthy Tom Poti. Through 26 games, the roster is clearly not settled.

In the 2009-10 season, the Capitals blew away the NHL during the regular season, finishing with 121 points and the Presidents Trophy. Their criticism, however, was how they weren’t playing the right way to win in the playoffs, and they found this out to be true after losing in seven games to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. After the following season and an embarrassing second round playoff exit at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team moved toward a more defensive-minded system, while bringing in players like Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward. The problem with the team today is that they have too many defensive players and not enough offensive players contributing to the score sheet.

While Semin could be infuriating at times for Caps fans, his 408 points over six seasons in Washington are sorely missed, especially on the first line. This season captain Alex Ovechkin has played on a line with centers Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro, two consistent point producers. But that leaves a revolving door at left wing. Marcus Johansson, Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Joey Crabb and Aaron Volpatti have seen time there. Aside from Johansson, none of those players are considered offensive talents.

Johansson has had his chances on the first line, possibly none greater then during the game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 12th. After collecting the puck from goalie Justin Peters’ right, Ribeiro made a perfect pass just outside the crease to Johansson. The young Swede then proceeded to completely miss the puck, and a potentially great momentum-changing moment. That is only one of the many missed opportunities.

Surprisingly, we have not seen the Caps’ fourth leading scorer, Brouwer, given the chance. That may be because he has settled in quite nicely lately with Eric Fehr and, until March 12th, Backstrom. He currently is second on the team in goals  with nine and has the skills to replace the recently departed and former Ovechkin linemate in Mike Knuble.

While he started the season in the press box, Fehr is another player that could be given a shot on the first line. Through 23 games he has 12 points, not exactly exciting numbers. And although he has not recorded a point in the last three games, he has played considerably better, especially with his control of the puck and his ability to crash the opposing team’s net.

A week before the trading deadline in 2011, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero traded defenseman Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars for forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen. While playing a top six roll, Neal went on to score 81 points in 80 games for the Penguins the following season. This is the type of trade that McPhee needs to make. He has the trade commodities to make it happen, but will he do it?

The biggest trading chip that the Caps currently have on the roster is Ribeiro, but that is a risky move. The team has not had a second line center since Sergei Fedorov, and Ribeiro has quickly become a fan favorite in D.C.

A more likely candidate to be traded that could bring something in return is Johansson, because he has what rebuilding teams desire in potential. Teams that are looking to offload older and/or more expensive talent look for young players, especially centers, in return that have the potential to be very talented players. While Johansson has not been turning on the red light with the Caps as of late, he has the tools to make it happen. He is also expendable with the prediction that fellow Swede Filip Forsberg will be playing with the Caps next season. Add a draft pick or prospect to the deal and the return could be someone that can truly help this team offensively.

Going forward, McPhee has some real thinking to do. Is this team truly a candidate to make the playoffs and go on a serious run? The Los Angeles Kings were not a team people with high expectations last season going into the playoffs, and we saw how that played out. So until the Caps are mathematically eliminated, there is always a chance. However, McPhee has to be realistic and see that this team needs help on offense. Time to do something about it.

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