Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What exactly do we have here?

Just for kicks, today I'm going to do a rundown of the Caps current offensive line combos, which promises to be woefully out of date by 3 o'clock. I've had some troubling thoughts about the lines as they are currently constructed, so let's get right to it.

Line 1 - Ovechkin - Kozlov - Fleishmann
Line 2 - Semin - Nylander - Backstrom
Line 3 - Pettinger - Gordon - Clark
Line 4 - Brashear - Steckel/Sutherby - Bradley/Laich

At first glance, the first two lines look like offensive dynamos, and are certainly a marked improvement from last year. There are, however, some issues that may force these combinations to be shuffled sooner rather than later.

First, is Flash Fleishmann ready to take control of the right wing on the first line? Is he ready to play first line NHL minutes, and be marked by every team's top checking line night in and night out? I'm a bit more wary than optimistic on him right now. Flash certainly has the offensive skillset, but with a line that will undoubtedly run from the left side, can he be effective without the puck? Personally, I think the line would be better off with a more physical wing, and can very easily see Chris Clark moving back to the first line within the Caps first 10 games. Unless Flash can prove me wrong and play as physically imposing, rough and tumble game, I don't see him sticking with the top unit. And yes, I know Kozlov is 800 feet tall and weighs roughly two tons, but at center he won't see as much time down low in the trenches as his wings will. As for the Russian Machine... well... he'll be fine no matter what.

The second line is more of the same. Incredible talent, to be certain, but who is going to win the loose pucks in the corner? Young Backstrom still has some growing to do (both physically and in adjusting to the North American game). He's also not naturally a wing, which means he has little experience fighting for loose pucks along the boards. We all know grinding it out is not Semin's specialty, either. It looks like this line will use offense as their best defense. All three are adept at holding the puck, and they'll need to be, because they aren't going to win a whole lot of physical battles. Additionally, look for opposing players to play a tough (if not dirty) physical game against three players not known for their power game.

As strange as it seems to say, the line with the strongest overall game may well be the Caps checking line. While there isn't an Ovechkin, Semin, or Nylander in the bunch, what Clark, Pettinger and Gordon do have is airtight defensive play with a nasty physical edge coupled with strong offensive ability. While their first responsibility will always be shutting down the opposition's top lines, don't expect them to play the entire night chasing the puck around their own end. Instead, look for them to counterattack what will almost always be defensively weak sets of forwards.

The Caps fourth line should be as intimidating an energy line as any in the NHL as long as Big Donnie Brashear stays healthy and motivated (which has never been a problem for him).

Now, what is the key to allowing the Caps to move to a more balanced lineup that could address some of these weaknesses? To no surprise, it's the development of young Nicklas Backstrom. If the youngster can hone his craft to the point where Coach Hanlon is comfortable with him at the center position, a whole host of options open up. For example:

Line 1 - Ovechkin - Backstrom - Kozlov
That solves the whole "who's doing the digging in the corner" issue right there. It's the behemoth at right wing.

Line 2 - Semin - Nylander - Clark
Instead of finesse, finesse, finesse, you've got finesse, awareness and grit. Much harder to defend against this line with a little toughness added.

Line 3 - Pettinger - Gordon - Steckel/Sutherby
Two natural centers to deal with defensive draws should one be kicked out of the dot. Still a whole lot of defense, but with slightly less offensive upside.

Line 4 - Brashear - Sutherby/Laich/Steckel /Bradley
Still not a line you'd want to meet in a dark alley.

Unfortunately, that leaves Fleischmann as the odd man out, since his skillset doesn't translate well to the third or fourth line right now. In a perfect world, his his defensive game improves to the point where you're comfortable with him on the third line, but I don't see that happening this season.

So there you have it. A look at what is, and what might be. Now if we can only get the season started already...

1 comment:

Roger Padre said...

You make good points. How Fleischman performs is going to make a significant difference to the entire line up. Obviously, if he cannot meet expectations with Ovie and Kozlov, there will be a domino effect throughout. Eric Eehr is also an odd man out. He has not performed up to expectations so far. He is a RW and could make a play for a slot when back from his injury. Backstrom at 19 has yet to prove that he can be a force in his first year.

By the way. This post appears twice.