The early season story of the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals have focused on the existential qualities of Alexander Ovechkin’s superstar and whether or not it has faded to mere star status. Questions have been thrown all over print and online media as to whether Ovechkin can steer the Capitals’ franchise back on the course it was heading on. The  struggles of the Neuvirth/Holtby duo have too been well documented (see for the latest day winner of this to day battle), as well as the fading out of Mike Green to boot.

Eric Fehr went as far as to outright state that this is now an aging team. A bit of an overstatement considering its stars are still all in their twenty-somethings, most likely yes. But nonetheless, it certainly appears to be a squad that has become stagnant.

 However, very little focus has been directed to the club’s top line centreman Nicklas Backstrom, the former 100 point man and set-up king for Ovechkin. Since his 101 point 2009-10 season, Nicklas has seen his points per game total go on a wild rollercoaster ride from 1.23 PPG, to a massive drop off at .84 PPG in 2010-11, followed by a nice bounce back last season at 1.05 PPG. This leads us to today’s career low .73 PPG rate of play, well below the 25-year-old’s high-end capabilities.


Let’s take a quick look at Frozen Pool’s Most Frequent line combinations output generator, to see if any hypotheses can be derived…


Beginning with the apex of this of this Capitals era, the 2009-10 regular season until today, these are Backstrom’s most paired up linemates. See a common theme building Mr. Oates?


2009-2010 Season Most Common Linemates



2010-2011 Season Most Common Linemates



2011-2012 Season Most Common Linemates



2012-2013 Season Most Common Linemates




It’s fair to assess the most productive time of the Ovechkin-era as pre-HBO:24/7, when the Capitals featured a much more top heavy offensive line distribution. Backstrom received plenty of time with both Ovy and the recently departed Alexander Semin, as outlined in the charts above. This line combo also starred in the slightly lesser but still productive subsequent seasons. Whereas this year, the line juggling, albeit necessary due to massive overall team struggles, has been all over the map with very few combinations really holding much staying power. The flavour of the night has been rotating in and out of the top nine, with forwards like Marcus Johansson being as high on the depth chart in the early goings as first line centreman, while nights later being as low as press box clipboard holder for George McPhee.


It’s as clear as day that Backstrom needs to be given a shot with a substantial amount of time lined up once again with Alexander the Great, the most likely opportunity for Washington to find quick and easy chemistry, with low risk and a high reward. To expound on that, things can’t get much worse for the Caps who sit on five points, already three back of the 29th best team in the league. So why not resort to a former glory duo on the regular rather than in moderation as has been the case thus far. So far, spreading the wealth hasn’t helped, so why not try to create at least one line that has the clear potential to dominate? And with Brooks Laich’s season debut now imminent, a trickle-down effect could be very possible.


Another element that could very quickly help Backstrom which is aligned with the previous philosophy is to ramp up his overall ice time. Sure, that doesn’t exactly come off as intuitive, but facts are facts, the spreading out of talent in the lineup has also resulted in lesser ice time for the top dogs. This area also could receive a top heavy focus. 


Take a peak at the 2009-2010 minutes he was getting, his best season to date(FP’s Chart-A-Player Graph Generator), where he often got up to the mid-twenties in minutes per contest.






Then back track to the past year and a half (below), and you’ll see a dramatic reduction in playing time. Granted, ice time should be allotted based on merit primarily. But when the going gets tough, you just have to go with your top talent.






   2013 Season-To Date



It’s pretty evident to me that these are quickly becoming desperate times for the Capitals organization. They will not be obtaining the services of super-prospect, Evgeni Kuznetsov from Russia until the 2014 training camp at the earliest (as he has another year left on his KHL deal) nor will they be calling upon last June’s first rounder, Filip Forsberg,  who will not be arriving in D.C. until next fall.


Therefore, barring a significant trade, Mr. Oates can do worse by throwing out his best possible line time and time again, every third shift, coupling the club’s two biggest stars together as much as they had in years past, with any hope to achieve better things and hope that when Laich and Perreault are able to re-join the troops that they are able to beef up the secondary attack.


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(Give Anthony Lancione a follow on Twitter @Anthisdaman)

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