A Lineup Full of Holes

Posted January 20, 2014

Head Coach Adam Oates has a lot of holes in his lineup. (Photo by Capitals Outsider)

Coming into this season, the Washington Capitals were once again looked at as a Stanley Cup contender. They may not have been the absolute favorite, but it was believed that they would have a shot at making a run in the playoffs. Goalie Braden Holtby was their number one guy and first half year head Coach Adam Oates had revitalized star winger Alex Ovechkin. Things were looking good for hockey in the District.

Fast forward four months, and the team is in shambles. The lineup changes on an almost nightly basis, but it’s had no effect as the same problems exist. There is a lack of motivation and focus. Teams they should be beating easily, like National Hockey League cellar dwellers the Buffalo Sabres, but end up losing with little to no offensive effort. When the offense is there, the defense disappears. The questions come back not only on the coaching staff, but those in the front office. The people that put this roster together, the people who created this mess.

Offensively, the biggest problem this team has is they are relying on Ovechkin to score, and Ovechkin alone. While occasionally other players step up, it is rare that the scoring comes from anyone not named Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, or Mikhail Grabovski, the team’s top three scorers. An interesting note is that both Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer have been given substantial time getting top six minutes and yet neither are doing much offensively. Brouwer currently has nine goals and 20 points in 48 games, making him a 0.42 point per game player, while Laich has five goals and eight points in 34 games, making him a 0.24 point per game player. Eric Fehr, who was benched earlier in the season for numerous games, has eight goals and 19 points in 39 games, making him a 0.49 point per game player. Yet, he was recently demoted to the fourth line upon another one of Oates lineup changes. At no point this season has Brouwer seen less ice time or been sent to the press box. At one point, both Laich and Brouwer, two players with similar skill sets, were playing on the first line with Backstrom. They created no offense.

Ovechkin has spent most of the season with Backstrom, but has had a rotation of players to his far left. He started the season with Marcus Johansson, but was has also seen time with Fehr, Laich, and Martin Erat. While Johansson was arguably the best left winger to play with Ovechkin, he may not be the right kind of player that he needs. In both games against Buffalo, the Capitals took far too many shots from the outside, with goalie Ryan Miller having no trouble getting a clean look at the puck. What Ovechkin needs is a gritty left wing who can crash the net and make the goalies life difficult.

Defensively the Capitals are a nightmare. Aside from the top pairing of Karl Alzner and USA Olympian John Carlson, the defensive pairings are one sided or not talented enough. Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov have similar skill sets, although Green is clearly more talented. However, Oates has had them paired together, creating a mismatch defensively. Green has never been solid in his own end, while Orlov is making more mistakes lately. The third pairing of John Erskine and whomever they have called up recently also is not working.

Erskine has lost more than a step in his game. He was re-signed last season to a two year, 1.9625 million dollar deal to continue using his physical play to the Capitals’ advantage. This season, the only physical play we have seen has been after the play has stopped. Far too often opposing players have had no problems standing right in front of whichever goalie of the moment Oates puts in net. The rotating sixth defenseman of Connor Carrick, Steve Oleksy (waived Monday), Alexander Urbom (who has since been put on waivers and claimed by the New Jersey Devils), Nate Schmidt and Patrick Wey has made no difference in the lineup, but created a lot of instability.

The goaltending problems have been well documented, and do not appear to be getting better anytime soon. Rookie Philip Grubauer has started 14 of the team’s last 20 games, and was just sent down to Hershey. Michal Neuvirth started the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Holtby appears to be the odd man out. Part of the problem with the goalies comes back on the team’s poor defensive performance, but the lack of a clear number one has to play a role in the goalies preparation and mental stability. The carousel of goalies may be able to explain some Holtby’s poor performance before losing his spot to Grubauer, although another reason could be the change in his game that goalie coach Olaf Kolzig is working on with him. Perhaps to better settle the position down, Oates should decide on a number one goalie and a back up. Having one in the press box every night does little for them, especially since they are all young goalies and need playing time to get better.

There is still time to fix this team to help reach the playoffs and even make a run at Lord Stanley’s Cup, but it will not be easy. After the poor performance against the Rangers, the Capitals will now be on a five game losing streak. A major change is needed. They have quality players they can move out to help this roster. In 2011, the team dealt number one goalie Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for multiple draft picks (one of which allowed them to select Filip Forsberg, which General Manage George McPhee then panic-traded away to Nashville for Erat and Michael Latta). The team could look to do this again with Neuvirth, although they may be better suited to moving him out for a top six winger or top three defenseman. There are teams that are still building, and may be looking for a number one goalie. The Calgary FlamesNew York Islanders, and possibly the Sabres (if they move Miller) could be looking for goaltending help. All three teams could be sellers at the trade deadline, and may be interested in a young goalie. Players like Matt Moulson or Kyle Okposo could be placed with Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Defensively, Green is greatly in need a steady defensive minded partner. While there was a rumor that the Capitals were after Rostislav Klesla of the Phoenix Coyotes, he was recently sent down the AHL after clearing waivers, and wouldn’t have been the answer for the second pairing. They need someone who can cover for Green when he jumps into the rush. This would then allow Orlov to be put on the third line where he may be better suited at the moment. Moving out Erskine would free up some cap space, and can be easily replaced by Oleksy, who has arguably the same skill set while bringing more to the table offensively.

The team has three weeks before the Olympic roster freeze on February 7th at 3pm, and a ridiculously tough schedule after the games in Sochi, Russia. The time to make some changes and make a run is now. McPhee has to do something, and it has to be big. Changing the lineup is not going to be enough. McPhee is running out of time on this season and his time in Washington if this team does not make the playoffs