By Ian Oland
The Washington Capitals reintegrated Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson back onto their roster without losing an asset. The GM did his job, but the head coach seems to be struggling with his.
After having one of their best months in the Laviolette Era, the Capitals have lost four of six games in January and watched helplessly as their forward lines lost chemistry. Laviolette mandated that both Backstrom and Wilson play in the top six. Instead of bringing the two stars along slowly, Laviolette threw Backstrom and Wilson back into the fire, gave them big responsibility, and changed all of the forward lines – most of which were working previously.
Laviolette has changed every line every game minus the fourth line of Johansson-Dowd-Hathaway, which played two consecutive games.
The result has been hard to watch. The Capitals looked discombobulated and scored only five goals in their last three games with Backstrom and Wilson back. That output has come against two Metropolitan Division teams that will likely not make the playoffs: Columbus and Philadelphia. It’s also pushed the Capitals back into a wild-card spot in the East with other teams around them having games in hand.
whenever you have the chance to split these guys up, you do it every time, you just gotta pic.twitter.com/VADph93DUi
— good tweet pete 🌮 (@peterhassett) January 15, 2023
The players who have seen the most chaos have been Anthony Mantha and Dylan Strome. Mantha, who has a 53.7 shot-attempts percentage and a 54.8 expected goals percentage at five-on-five, was scratched in the first two games with 19 and 43 back. Laviolette, who previously split up the Sheary-Strome-Ovechkin first line — one of the best lines in hockey, moved Strome from second-line winger to third-line center and then finally out of the lineup completely Saturday against the Flyers.
Sidelining Strome, the Capitals’ third-leading scorer, was a head-scratcher and Laviolette was asked about it after the Caps’ 3-1 loss to the Flyers.
“Dylan’s played great for us,” Laviolette said. “He’ll be back in there. It’s just these are tough decisions. I have to keep a balanced lineup in there. I’ve gotta keep faceoff guys in there. I’ve gotta keep penalty-kill guys in there. Um, you know, he’s done a good job. He’ll be back in.”
Reading between the lines, Laviolette is saying that he’s trying to find the best players for nuanced roles out on the ice. His “faceoff guys” and “penalty-kill guys” line is referring specifically to Nic Dowd and Lars Eller. Dowd has skated 97 minutes and Eller has received 80 minutes on the penalty kill — the most amongst centers on the Capitals. Eller (54%) and Dowd (51%) are also the only centers on the Capitals who have played all season and have a faceoff winning percentage above 50.
While Strome makes plays happen — he has eight goals and 31 points in 44 games — he’s also not considered to be reliable in the dot (49%). He’s taken the least amount of D-zone draws amongst Capitals centers by a large margin. Strome has also not been utilized on the penalty kill almost at all this season (31 seconds).
But Strome’s talents outweigh his rougher edges and he also can play on the wing well. It’s curious that he could not get a jersey over someone else in the top nine. Laviolette was asked if having 14 healthy and talented forwards was a difficult challenge.
“It is what it is,” he replied. “If we didn’t have those players at the beginning of the season, we might not be sitting in the position we’re in. The guys that we signed have done a terrific job. We now have some guys back from injury and are trying to integrate that. Guys, when they get the opportunity, they’re going to go in there and play hard. When they come out, it’s not necessarily because they needed to come out. [Dylan] has played well for us this year.”
As for Backstrom and Wilson, Laviolette admitted that they don’t look themselves yet. The two players are a combined minus-two and have one point — Backstrom had a primary assist on a TJ Oshie goal on Wednesday.
“That’s to be expected,” Laviolette said. “I noticed them both more tonight. I noticed Nick tonight. I noticed Tom more tonight. I think that’ll probably be the gradual progression of it. I think it’s unfair to expect them jump in Game 1 after both having pretty big procedures done, no training camp, no game time, and then expect in Game 1 to be at peak performance. It’s going to take time for them to continue to grow, but there’s been growth inside the games for me. I’ve noticed them more. I thought Tom could have had a couple goals tonight.”
It raises the question: If Laviolette is not seeing full results from 19 and 43, perhaps he should blunt their impact on the team as they work themselves back? And consistent producers who have performed all season long, like Strome, remain with prominent spots in the lineup.
The Capitals’ next game comes Monday against the New York Islanders. It’ll be an important matchup. The Isles sit three points behind Washington in the second wild card spot with a game in hand.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB
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