There’s been several suggestions in the media lately about shifting the lines around for this season, NoVaCaps article by Harrison Brown is just the latest incarnation of it. I honestly think it’s a combination of summer doldrums filler writing to produce clicks and comments combined with actual assessment of some of the previous lineups used coupled with some creative theories on how to maximize the talent in the top nine in different ways as a reflection of the depth of the top three lines as the roster exists right now.
I actually don’t mind if there’s some experiment early on in the season as long as we’re pretty sure of how the lines shake out before say Thanksgiving / Christmas. If we’re going into the new year still playing mix-and-match that’s problem. But, the nice thing bout the Caps is that there’s enough complimentary styles in how the top-nine play that there’s definitely some opportunity to experiment to find groupings that can work in case of injury, that can give a new look to enhance specific matchups, or just to give guys breaks / promotions in ice time.
For starters, there’s probably some “wrong” answers inherently, but also there’s a lot of unknowns right now.
Panik & Haglin — Both guys are new(er) to the team. Hags had the experience of coming in at the deadline so we’ll have to see how he fares for a full season, while Panik has to adjust to the system, teammates, role, etc.
Oshie & Kuzy — Both guys are coming off some kind of “injury,” in the case of Oshie it was enough for him to miss time in the playoffs, for Kuzy it seemed nagging enough it affected his play across the board.
Oshie, Ovi & Backstrom — Will old man time catch up as all three are a year older with a year more wear and tear on the “wrong side of 30” so to speak. While I wouldn’t get against Ovi but will it be a 33 goal season like a few back or a smashing 50 goal one like this past? Can Oshie find another 30 goal season?
Vrana & Wilson – Both seem to have another gear to hit in their games, but will they take it this season, or perhaps plateau off a bit after extraordinary steps up last season?
Next, you have to think about what qualifies as the first line. How you define that probably defines how you figure out the next two. There are combos that will create top heavy and sheltered lines and combos that can make more even minutes distribution. There are combos that maximize scoring, or possession, or defense, or physicality, etc.
The biggest threat on the team is Ovi, so matter where he lines up / with whom there’s going to be a focus by fans, the media and the opponents. So maybe Ovi’s presence is what defines the “first line” to some degree. To that end there’s three possible ways leveraging the three different centers:
Ovi-Backstrom >> the classic conservative approach leveraging both Backy’s familiarity with Ovi and his solid defensive game
Ovi-Kuzy >> the high risk, high reward approach leveraging Kuzy’s speed and vision to go all out on the rush
Ovi-Eller >> in an emergency you gotta do what you gotta do. Injured Ovi’s played down-line before. Eller’s contributed up-line to fill for injuries. It’s not going to light up the world but it’s not necessarily the worst combination (I mean, it’s not first line Beagle!)
And three possible ways to go on wing. Here’s how the could match against the centers:
Ovi-Wilson >> Successful pairing of complimenting styles (Ovi the shooter, Wilson the net and wall presence) featuring two of the biggest bodies on the team. Call it the all-pain pairing and the one relied on a lot the last few years regardless of who centered them
Kuzy helps make Ovi more creative, benefits Wilson’s offense while Wilson helps provide some defense to Kuzy’s style — this is what, on paper, might be called the de facto “first line”
Backy knows Ovi’s abilities and is a deft playmaker who can also help Wilson’s offense, but it’s more defensively sound an we’ve also seen it’s success
Eller brings defensive ability without the same offensive upside but if you need to free up offensive centers for other pairings could work for the short term.
Ovi-Oshie >> Successful pairing of complimenting styles (Ovi the shooter, Oshie the net and wall presence) this was the pairing when Oshie first came over from the Blues and helped really bring stability to the top line after a rotating door of opposite wingers for Ovi.
Backy centered this a lot before so we know it’s defensively responsible while still having some offensive upside.
Kuzy could help spring Oshie more while Oshie’s possession ability could help stabilize Kuzy’s defense. We’ve seen versions of this before with mixed results
Eller brings defensive ability without the creativity but probably wouldn’t stifle the offensive upside of either of these guys either in the short term
Ovi-Panik >> this would be new and untested with either center. If Panik doesn’t completely defer to Ovi and is able to pull the trigger enough on his own his defensive style could compliment the line well. After all Ovi’s played with guys less skilled than Panik on his opposite wing over the years. It’s definitely intriguing if you’re trying to distribute Wilson and Oshie’s scoring elsewhere.
Kuzy could help spring Panik more while his possession ability could help stabilize Kuzy’s defense.
Backstrom could also help get Panik more looks while the two would compliment each other on possession
Eller is probably a stretch for this as it would rely very heavily on Ovi for offense but it should be defensively responsible and thus could be useful in select situations.
From there there’s two approaches. Match a wing to a center like what was done with Ovi above and find an opposing wing to compliment the pair, or rather, match wing pairings by skills and then find a center for them. I chose the latter because the Caps really seem to like to design line building using a balance of puck distribution, shooting and forechecking, or more simply balancing scoring prowess and defensive acumen. the way the top-nine is built with varying strengths and individual abilities on the wings offers a lot of combinations. If we assume something like the first wings defined above with Ovi-Wilson, you’re probably looking at the following second and third wing pairings of:
Vrana-Oshie >> Successful pairing of complimenting styles (Vrana the shooter, Oshie the net and wall presence).
Backy has centered this the most and his style compliments both guys well, so it’s predictable — This is what, on paper, generally looks like the de facto “second line”
Kuzy hasn’t seen this pairing as much but could really help spring Vrana while benefiting from Oshie’s possession ability to stabilize his defense
Eller brings defensive ability helps Vrana and keeps the line responsible but’s a poor man’s version of Backstrom since it lacks the same offensive upside
Haglin-Panik >> Redundant in that it’s heavily focused on possession. Panik would be considered the trigger man.
Kuzy – this would certainly help Kuzy’s defense. It could potentially spring Panik for scoring or open Kuzy up more to call his own number because of their possession responsibility
Backstrom – creates a strong possession line. Could open backy up to calling his own number more or could produce good numbers for panik with Backy’s ability to distribute the puck.
Eller – Also would drive possession. Relies on how Panik and Eller mesh for creating scoring which is an unknown at the moment but on paper has depth potential but this is most likely the de facto third line
But you could also swap the wingers around the centers like this to provide some creative ways of redistributing scoring, physicality and defense along the top nine:
Vrana-Wilson >> Potentially complimenting styles (Vrana the shooter, Wilson the net and wall presence), that separates the big bodies of Ovi and could be a common look in the post-Ovi era whenever that comes.
Kuzy – Success here depends on how much Vrana improves defensively as well as Kuzy since Wilson probably cannot offset both their lapses right now. However, Kuzy’s creativity could really spring Vrana too turning this in’t a poor man’s version of the Ovi version of this grouping and potentially a top line of the future.
Backstrom – Vrana’s skated with Backy before providing creative offense and possession help. Wilson on the opposite wing gives the line a heavier look from the Oshie pairing which could be beneficial, it’s like a twisted version of recent top lines.
Eller – Adds defense to Vrana if necessary and compliments Wilson’s possession approach but would likely also create a plateau in Vrana and Wilson’s offense.
Vrana-Panik >> Potentially complimenting styles (Vrana the shooter, Panik more defense). this would be new and untested with either center.
Kuzy – Both guys benefit from Kuzy’s creativity on offense. Probably relies too heavily on Panik for his defensive ability though.
Backstrom – Potentially good balance of creating offense from the wings and gives Vrana a bit more freedom since Panik can cover on the possession side too.
Eller – Isn’t going to light up the world for either possession or scoring but should provide complimentary roles among the three, though depends heavily on Vrana’s individual scoring ability.
Haglin-Oshie >> Redundant styles that focus on possession. Oshie would become the trigger man out of necessity.
Kuzy – this would certainly help Kuzy’s defense and was used at times already last season seemingly for this reason. Relies heavily on Kuzy for scoring either by feeding well to Oshie or calling his own number with more creative freedom since they other guys are providing cover.
Backstrom – creates a potential possession juggeranut but probably isn’t going to score a tonne with Oshie as the primary threat since Backy doesn’t call his own number as much and Haglin isn’t known as a scoring winger any more.
Eller – Also would drive possession but if the Backstrom version doesn’t score much then the Eller version does even less but might also be an interesting look for the third line of the future.
Haglin-Wilson >> Redundant styles that focus on possession. Would be an absolute pain-in-the-ass to play against with two agitators together.
Kuzy – both guys help kuzy’s defense. Depends on Wilson and Kuzy for offense which although they’ve had success with Ovi also could rely on him to free them up.
Backstrom – creates a potential possession juggeranut but probably isn’t going to score a tonne with Wilson in the role of Oshie above now.
Eller – Also could drive possession but if the Backstrom version doesn’t score much then the Eller version does even less, probably similar to Oshie above
I’m not saying all of these should be tested on ice, or even that I’d want to see most of them personally. Something like Ovi-Backstrom-Panik with Vrana-Kuzy-Wilson with Haglin-Eller-Oshie could buy you some interesting matchups, to say the least, but I probably wouldn’t want to have to run with that more than a couple of games under specific circumstances right now although there’s probably some shadows of the future team hidden in there. The reality is you could configure the centers and wings more like interchangeable puzzle pieces than what most teams might be able to accomplish and have a lot of possible successful combinations, which, might be a nice problem to have as a Cup winning team is usually more than just the sum of it’s individual pieces.